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Amazon knows your face and your voice. New lawsuit says it's going too far

caption: Wes and Leann Wu
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Wes and Leann Wu
KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols

Customers are mostly okay with letting Amazon track them. It's the way of the world, they say.

State governments aren't so lenient. Texas, Illinois and Washington have passed laws regulating how companies use customers' biometric data.

A shareholder's lawsuit says Amazon must pay closer attention to these new state laws.

Amazon really knows its customers. It knows their faces, their voices, and sometimes their palm prints.

One kind of tracking is obvious at Amazon Go stores: customers can sign in with their palms.

Palm prints are biometrics. Measurements of parts of our bodies that can be used, like an ID card, to link a person entering the store with their Amazon account.

From the moment a customer scans in, the technology then tracks customers through the store, observing who picks up a sandwich and who picks up a soda.

Leann and Wes Wu were getting lunch at the new Go store in Mill Creek on Friday. They said they have no problem with Amazon storing their biometric data.

Palm prints aren't the only kind of biometric data Amazon keeps on file. Alexa captures individuals' voice profiles to distinguish household members from each other. The newest Echo Show can learn to recognize our faces.

These biometric markers of our individuality, along with an understanding of our shopping interests and search history, mean that Amazon knows us pretty well. "It’s kind of the price we pay for the convenience," Leann Wu said.

Generally, customers at this Amazon Go seemed cautiously optimistic that Amazon would use its extensive knowledge about us appropriately.

"I think we would hope that that data is protected, or discarded after use, and not stored for a long time," added Leann's husband, Wes Wu.

Many customers say, while they may not be completely comfortable with having their biometric data tracked, the practice is common these days and just part of interacting with the modern world.

Several Mill Creek high schoolers visiting Amazon Go for lunch said their phones already have their thumbprints and know their faces. They would not mind adding Amazon to the list of companies that know them in this way.

caption: Juniors at Jackson High School in Mill Creek at Amazon Go for lunch
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Juniors at Jackson High School in Mill Creek at Amazon Go for lunch
KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols

Kristen Honeycutt expressed the same feeling as she strapped her toddler in the backseat of her SUV outside the new Go store.

She said a lot of other companies already have biometric informatin about her. "It seems to be the norm, of data collection. So I don’t know how to avoid it.”

Customers may be okay with it, but increasingly, states are not.

In 2017, Washington became the third state, after Illinois and Texas, to regulate how companies use biometric data. Washington's law requires that customers give consent for Amazon to use, sell and retain that data. Companies must get consent again when they change their policy, or plan some new use for that data.

The lawsuit, brought by Amazon shareholder Stephen Nelson in late April, says Amazon isn’t following these new state laws. The lawsuit says that this puts the company and its shareholders at financial risk.

Correction: An Amazon spokesperson clarified that facial recognition is not used at Amazon Go stores. The story has been updated.

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