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Palm payment – what can go wrong?

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Palm payment – what can go wrong?

Palm recognition biometrics combines the best of fingerprint, iris and face “reading” (photo: CC0 Public Domain)

Would you buy a bottle of drink for five cents? Before a person says yes, they should know that there is a catch. He will pay by scanning his palm and sharing his information with a Chinese tech giant.

That’s the scenario that Tencent began to implement with a set of Chinese users, as seen in a video posted on Douyin, China’s version of TikTok, in late September. In the video, a person who appears to be a WeChat employee instructs people to place their hand in front of a recognition device and record their palm prints in exchange for the special offer of…. soda. “New feature of WeChat Pay. Everyone is welcome to try our service and support us,” the voice says.

The user who later uploaded the video asks when this feature was released. The voice answers that it started half a year ago.

Yes – Tencent has started testing palmprint payment devices. The test has been ongoing for months.

Proponents of fingerprint recognition say the technology is more accurate and more secure than other forms of biometrics, and that it is harder to identify a person if the palmprint image is leaked. The fact is that fingerprint and facial recognition are already widely used in identity verification systems. But technology that differentiates between different palms—including visible skin lines and veins beneath the skin—is quickly becoming new territory in biometric recognition.

Although a lack of training data has slowed development of the technology, it is now almost ready for mass commercial application, say several researchers involved. “I can tell you: we have been working on palmprint recognition for more than 20 years. It’s done,” said David Zhang, a leading scientist in palmprint recognition and a professor in the School of Data Science at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “Right now, what I’m focused on and excited about is the app.”

Palm recognition and pandemics

The development of the new technology ties in well with China’s zero-covid policies, which mean people still wear masks and avoid physical contact. Against this background, allowing people to pay by waving their hand in front of a device seems preferable to facial or fingerprint recognition. Therefore, the project is not surprising. By offering users small monetary incentives in exchange for their participation and data, Tencent is one step closer to bringing palm recognition into everyday life – and on a truly massive scale.

Although Amazon was the first major tech company to officially implement palmprint scanners in its brick-and-mortar stores in the US, the technology could soon become ubiquitous in China thanks to Tencent-owned WeChat Pay. WeChat Pay is now used by over 800 million individuals and 50 million vendors in China.

Skepticism among specialists

But even given the advantages of palm recognition, installing the technology to the point of ubiquity would still lead to privacy risks and practical complications. Indeed, privacy analysts and activists remain skeptical that palmprint recognition should be used in payments — and what will happen if it is.

“Merchants are getting hacked day in and day out. When a major retailer gets hacked, you should change your passwords, and in the worst case, you should change your credit card number. But you can’t change your palm print if it’s compromised,” said Albert Fox Kahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (STOP). “So we see the project as a way for people to save a few minutes in line – at the cost of their biometric privacy, for the rest of their lives.”

The secret trials of WeChat

In late 2021, Chinese media first reported that Tencent was “exploring” a payment system that relies on scanning users’ palm prints. At the time, the company responded that it was only an internal research project and had no plans to implement the technology in real-world settings.

That changed a year later. Tencent then tested palmprint recognition devices for several months in Shenzhen, the city where the company’s headquarters are located.

Videos of the palm print payment devices for Tencent’s WeChat Pay system have surfaced on social media, showing them already in use in cafes, bakeries and supermarkets. In most cases, WeChat offers a small discount for customers to try out the new feature and submit their palmprint data.

The WeChat payment devices in these videos are iPad-sized white boxes with a screen showing instructions and a camera capturing the data from the palm. From the videos you can see that they are still in testing phase as error messages are often displayed.

Compared to Amazon, which has multiple retail stores, Tencent has the potential to carry out a faster and larger-scale deployment of palm payment technology, as almost every store and vendor in China has adopted WeChat Pay (or its rival Alipay) during China’s fintech revolution.

“Biometric payment has a huge window of opportunity as the era of 5G and multi-screens arrives, because devices can help [финтех компаниите] to connect with suppliers and consumers,” said Wang Pengbo, senior financial analyst at BoTong Analytics. “This is a solid reason why the payment giants have been scrambling to get facial recognition payment devices into stores as early as possible, before widespread adoption of the technology.” Pengbo suspects that big businesses are now laying the groundwork for palm recognition Similarly.

Cultivation and silence

It is unclear whether the Tencent devices, which were captured and shared on social media, were only intended to test the functionality of the palm-recognition technology – or also serve to collect data to help fine-tune the technology. None of the relevant videos show customers being told how their data will be used. Tencent has remained silent on the matter even when questioned by the media.

But it’s likely that the company (as well as Amazon) is doing the latter. In essence, it pays users to provide it with their data, which can be used to improve its own recognition algorithms. Amazon One’s terms and conditions, for example, say the company stores palm prints to “provide, personalize and improve service.” Amazon is also silent on the subject of how it handles data from users’ palms.

Advantages

Meanwhile, Zhang from the Chinese University of Hong Kong – one of the first scientists in the world to research palmprint recognition – says his team has developed its own palmprint scanning device and managed to collect information from more than 10,000 people. The data is not currently publicly available, but the professor said the team plans to publish an academic paper soon.

“Palmprint recognition combines [предимствата на идентифицирането] of the detail in fingerprints, the texture in irises, and the geometric information in faces,” says Zhang. His team’s research has found that when comparing biometric data collected from the same group of people, the accuracy of palmprint recognition is 10 times higher than that of fingerprints or faces.

Ethical issues

The palm recognition payment proposition seems simple: with it, you don’t need to carry a wallet, credit card or even a mobile phone to make a purchase in the store. But there are many practical and ethical challenges to this promise.

First of all, “the QR code system already works very well and is quite convenient,” says Martin Chorzempa, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

Because of this, the idea of ​​facial recognition payment, floated by many corporations in the last two years, never took off. An April 2022 survey of about 58,000 Chinese mobile payment users shows that 95.7% of them choose the QR code as their primary payment method. And 20.2% of all respondents consider the use of biometric data for payment unacceptable.

The idea that biometric recognition provides convenience for consumers is “a complete fallacy,” says STOP’s Kahn. Replacing traditional cashiers with biometric self-service checkouts only shifts more work from sellers to buyers. “This is not for the convenience of customers! It’s for the convenience of the store,” Kahn says.

However, the biggest barrier to the adoption of palm recognition remains the privacy and data security concerns that come with any use of biometrics. People around the world, including in China, are increasingly aware of the risks of providing their biometric data to companies and governments, no matter what benefits they are promised in return.

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