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Amazon Patents Smell and Skin Texture as Biometrics

DATE: March 29, 2022

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Amazon was recently awarded several patents for using biometrics such as smell and skin texture to identify people. Amazon’s Ring cameras have been a bit of an outlier lately as they don’t offer any sort of facial recognition, while the competing Google Nest cameras do. With these new patents, it appears Amazon may be looking to roll out something far more sophisticated than “simple” facial recognition, though Amazon claims that patents don’t necessarily reflect products or services that are in development. 

Another patent that was awarded is for a “Neighborhood Alert Mode.” This would allow someone to report a suspicious person that they captured on their Ring doorbell or camera and would alert other Ring devices in the area to start recording and tracking the suspicious person. On the one hand, if a crime has been committed, this could be a valuable tool for law enforcement to track down the criminal. On the other hand, how many times do you see reports on social media about suspicious people walking down the street that aren’t really suspicious at all? This could easily lead to more completely innocent people being tracked than criminals. 

The patent is also vague on how the recordings from other devices will be used. I personally hope that if “Bob” down the street reports a video of “Bill” as suspicious, Amazon’s not going to give Bob all the recordings of Bill from devices across town. I could see that system being used as another stalking tool. However, in this example, if Amazon doesn’t give Bob the recordings, what happens to them? Do all of the individual Ring device owners have to send the recordings to law enforcement? Do they sit on Amazon’s cloud? Does law enforcement get direct access to them? 

That’s not to mention some of the other technologies Amazon has filed patents for, like odor detection. On its own, it doesn’t seem that useful to me. Perhaps it could be usefully combined with other biometrics like facial recognition or fingerprint scanning. But that begs the question of how much biometric tracking is too much for devices installed on millions of homes and owned by one of the largest corporations in the world? 

If Amazon does begin rolling out more of these tracking features, they’ll be able to build a detailed picture of a significant portion of the population. You wouldn’t even have to be an Amazon customer. If your neighbor has a Ring doorbell or camera that can see your house, Amazon would then know where you live. When you leave, when you return. They could track every place you visited that had a Ring doorbell or camera, how often you go for a jog around the neighborhood, or if you remembered to put on deodorant that morning, the list goes on. 

With all this data stored on Amazon’s cloud, it becomes susceptible to hackers, Amazon employees working in bad faith, and government monitoring. That level of data would be a massive target, and as with most things in the cyber world, I don’t believe it’s a matter of if there’s a breach but when. As such, we have to ask, how much data about our personal lives are we OK with these corporations having?

About the author

Chuck Garwood

System Administrator

765-494-1992, garwoodc@purdue.edu

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