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Amazon Palm Scanning Is Not OK

In my day job, I am an assistant professor of technical communication at Arizona State University. My specialties are social media and digital ethics. In keeping with that research and teaching focus, Independent Clauses has signed on to a letter to Red Rocks Amphitheater that calls for the venue to stop using Amazon’s palm scanning as a method of ticketless entry. That letter is available here, along with a list of other organizations and artists who have signed it.

There are multiple reasons that I have included Independent Clauses on this letter. The overarching concerns are that technologies of this type are potentially ineffective and dangerous.

First, technologies that promise this sort of unique identification are often not able to actually provide it. Pre-existing biometric identification technologies such as facial recognition have very bad success rates.They often make suggestions based on very low expectation of accuracy that are taken as facts by readers. These technologies are also particularly bad at ‘correctly’ identifying people of color, as Simone Browne notes in chapter three of Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness. This can lead to false positives, false negatives, or non-identifications, all of which can become a serious problem for the person involved. Any biometric identification technology is susceptible to failures of this type and related types. Even proponents of this technology are worried about the abuses it enables.

Secondly, identification technologies of this type often enact and enable databases of biometric information long after the information has been used. This is prima facie unethical; unless a person consents to longterm storage, information should be deleted when it is no longer needed for the purpose it was collected for. When information is not deleted, it can be requisitioned by the government for purposes that the person did not expect. It should not be possible for a person going to a concert to find their biometric data (originally gathered for concert entry purposes but transferred to other companies or the government) used against them in governmental, civil, or judicial proceedings.

Thirdly, palm scanning, retinal scanning, and other biometric markers are distinctive and unique identifiers. Data breaches are becoming an inevitable part of life; that which is collected will be breached at some point. This has already begun to occur: 28 million records of biometric data were breached in 2019. Breaches of distinctive identifiers (such as a palm print) would result in personal information being compromised to an extreme and perhaps unfixable degree.

In short, this particularly ineffective type of technology is often employed in ways that harm people who are subject to this technology, with communities of color and marginalized communities being particularly at risk. If you would like to hear me talk more about this issue via Simone Browne’s work, I did so in two podcast episodes in 2020, here and here.

You can read more about this call to reject palm scanning here. If you feel compelled to act online in relation to this issue, here are some ways.

If you want to post on Twitter, some suggestions include:

  • Quote Evan Greer’s tweet or one of the tweets on Fight for the Future’s page, like this one. You can also link to AmazonDoesntRock.com.
  • Tag @RedRocksCo, @AEGWorldwide, @AEGpresents and @AXS to ensure you’re delivering our message to the decision makers loud and clear

If you are inclined to post on Instagram, you can:   

Independent Clauses is not a policy organization; in eighteen years, we have taken stances on fewer than five issues. However, this issue is directly related to being able to enjoy concerts at one of the most iconic venues in the United States (Red Rocks) and other venues. Palm scanning is not a good idea, and it should be scrapped for the good of concert-goers’ civil rights.