A New York class action lawsuit against Amazon is requesting that the company be enjoined from tracking customers’ biometric information, such as collecting visitors’ facial scans or fingerprints, without alerting customers. The lawsuit is also requesting an award of damages and a jury trial.
Upon enacting a new law in 2021, New York City (NYC) became the only major city in the U.S. that requires companies to notify customers if they are collecting customers’ “biometric identifier information.” This includes any company that collects, retains, converts, stores or shares its customers’ physiological or biological characteristics. The biometrics within the scope of this law include customers’ retina scans, fingerprints, voiceprints, and scans of their hands and faces.
Lawmakers testified in the committee report of the Biometric Identifier Information Law:
As the use of facial recognition technology becomes more widespread it can give individuals or businesses the possibility to identify almost any person who goes out into public places, surreptitiously or otherwise, tracking movement, location and conduct. This will likely result in numerous private and public databases of information, which may be sold, shared, or used in ways that the consumer does not necessarily understand or consent to.
The report goes on to cite concerns about potential security failures or information leaks of customers’ biometric data. “The potential damage is irreversible, creating a constant fear of information or identity theft,” the committee said.
The law includes a private right of action in which a court may award damages of $500 for failure by a retailer to post signage alerting its customers that it is collecting their biometric information and damages of $5,000 if the business sells its customers’ biometric data.
In 2018, Amazon introduced a store, AmazonGo, where customers can walk in, pick up what they want, and leave without checking out. The company tracks visitors’ actions and charges their Amazon accounts when they leave. The first Amazon Go opened in New York in 2019 and there are currently 10 Amazon Go stores in New York City.
The lawsuit alleges that Amazon Go stores “constantly collect and use customers’ biometric identifier information, including by scanning the palms of some customers to identify them and by applying computer vision, deep learning algorithms, and sensor fusion that measure the shape and size of each customers body to identify customers, track where they move in the stores, and determine what they have purchased.”
After the Biometric Identifier Information Law went into effect, the lawsuit says, the company did not comply with the law’s simple disclosure requirement and did not alert customers that their biometric information was being collected.
Despite customers alerting the company that it was in violation of the law, Amazon did not post the mandated signage until after The New York Times reported on the company’s violations, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit additionally alleges that the signage posted “woefully fails to comply with the disclosure mandate” and that “the sign informs customers that Amazon will not collect biometric identifier information on them unless they use the Amazon One palm scanner to enter the Amazon Go store, even though Amazon Go stores do collect biometric identifier information on every single customer, including information on the size and shape of every customer’s body.”
Amazon has been criticized in the past for multiple privacy violations and surveillance practices, most notably for its home security Ring technologies.
In 2019, Democratic Senators Ron Wyden (Oregon), Ed Markey (Massachusetts), Chris Van Hollen (Maryland), Chris Coons (Delaware), and Gary Peters (Michigan) sent a letter to Amazon questioning the data security of Ring after researchers found that Rings could leave their owners’ Wi-Fi networks open to hackers. In one instance, a Ring camera in an 8-year-old’s bedroom was hacked, prompting her parents to file a lawsuit against the company. In 2020, Ring confirmed that at least four of its employees had been fired for watching private video footage from Ring owners.
Sen. Markey in particular has engaged in a multi-year effort to curtail Ring’s harmful surveillance practices.
“[Ring’s] surveillance system threatens the public in ways that go far beyond abstract privacy invasion: individuals may use Ring devices’ audio recordings to facilitate blackmail, stalking, and other damaging practices,” wrote Senator Markey. “As Ring products capture significant amounts of audio on private and public property adjacent to dwellings with Ring doorbells — including recordings of conversations that people reasonably expect to be private — the public’s right to assemble, move, and converse without being tracked is at risk.”
Notably, Amazon has partnered with police departments hundreds of times, raising activist concerns about what Amazon Go customers’ biometric information may be used for if the company does not comply with the law.
“Amazon is the largest provider of facial recognition technology to U.S. law enforcement, including federal immigration agencies and the FBI,” The Seattle Times reported in April of 2021. In July of 2021, 48 advocacy groups sent an open letter to the Federal Trade Commission, requesting that the agency ban Amazon surveillance.
Ring has partnered with more than 400 police departments to send requests for Ring video footage to users. In 2020, law enforcement issued more than 1,900 requests — including subpoenas, search warrants, and court orders — for footage or data from Ring cameras, and asked for access to more than 20,000 Ring videos. Amazon complied with requests more than 50 percent of the time, even if device owners objected.
This year, the New York City Police Department announced that it would join Ring Neighbors, an app and social network that’s part of Amazon’s Ring video doorbell system, triggering concern from advocate organizations across the city.
“The NYPD’s use of Amazon Ring provides the department with another rapidly growing, massive surveillance network that is centralized and controlled by one of the largest corporations on earth,” an NY-ACLU press release said.
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