Amazon Looks to Patent 'Pay by Selfie' Technology

March 17, 2016
By: Tara Seals

Call it a mobile payments idea for the Kardashian age: why not use selfies for payment processing? Amazon thinks it’s the way to go: The e-tailer is looking to patent the ability to authenticate a payment using a selfie.

According to a newly-filed patent application, Amazon shoppers would be able to authorize a purchase using a photo instead of a password.

“A computing device might capture an image of a user and analyze that image to attempt to recognize the user using facial recognition software,” Amazon said in the application.

As Amazon explains in the filing, facial recognition allows its users to move beyond passwords, which can be stolen or brute-forced, and which are susceptible to lazy end-user behavior (“password1” is sadly al too popular of a choice, which hands hackers a gift-wrapped opportunity). And, there’s a user experience aspect: On mobile devices, it’s really annoying to have to enter a password over and over.

In many ways, the move is a perfect example of how financial institutions and other businesses are looking for new ways to improve their customers’ mobile experience, particularly when it comes to younger consumers. Consumers already interact with their banks, insurance companies and other businesses by using their mobile camera to deposit checks, pay bills, snap pictures of documents to auto-populate data into forms, and yes, snap selfies to verify their identity.

Research seems to support the effort. A survey of millennials from Lexis Nexis, entitled “Millennials, Selfies and The Changing Face of Mobile Commerce,” found that 87% never let their smartphone leave their side and that millennials increasingly want the important processes in their lives—from enrolling in classes to signing up for healthcare—to be simplified by snapping photos with the mobile camera to auto populate data or verify their identity.

In fact, nearly half (48%) of respondents indicated they would like to do more banking with a snapshot, while one-third said they would like nearly every industry to adopt more mobile imaging functionality.

Amazon isn’t alone in the idea. MasterCard has partnered with the bigwigs in the smartphone space, including market leaders Apple and Google, BlackBerry, Microsoft (News - Alert)/Nokia and Samsung, to allow customers to pay by selfie when making online purchases. The program will go live in 14 countries this summer.

At checkout, users will be asked to hold up their phone and snap a photo, after which facial recognition software will either allow or disallow the transaction. The facial recognition scan won’t be saved on MasterCard (News - Alert) servers; rather, it’s converted into a code for secure transit, which can’t be used to reconstruct a picture of the user’s face once created.

Jack Ma, the founder and executive chairman of the Chinese e-commerce behemoth Alibaba, debuted the same idea at CeBIT (News - Alert) last year. Onstage, he demonstrated the function by scanning his face and, via mobile facial recognition, using the scan as a digital signature to purchase a German stamp online. The service, called "Smile to Pay," will be incorporated into the company’s Alipay Wallet NFC service in China, with other markets likely to follow.

Of course, there is some question as to how much safer than passwords this really is. When facial recognition is used as standalone authentication mechanism, there can be serious security concerns. Facial recognition has been fooled in the past by simply holding up photographs of the user, or with animated gifs. But, arguably, it’s more secure than simply requiring the verification code on the back of a credit card when buying stuff online, or a signature in-store. But, a PIN may still be the safest way to go.




Edited by Maurice Nagle