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Amazon eyes selfie payments but starring role not guaranteed

Amazon joins a growing list of companies, including MasterCard and Alibaba, betting on facial recognition to appeal to young consumers and address security concerns for mobile payments, but whether the popularity of selfies can translate into commerce has yet to be proven.

Amazon has reportedly filed for a patent that would entail a phone or computer prompting the user to perform certain motions such as smiling or blinking to authenticate identity and complete a payment. The move points to the ongoing push for more streamline mobile commerce experiences, with four-digit passwords viewed as too cumbersome.

“I don’t think [selfies] will necessarily be dominant, but I do think that it will become one of several alternatives for identity authentication, including fingerprints and voice authentication,” said Thad Peterson, senior analyst at Aite Group.

“I think that there could be a lot of possible ways to spoof an image and obtain access to the account and that has to be a major consideration as they develop the offering,” he said.

Faces in the crowd
Interest in the use of facial recognition to authenticate someone’s identity in financial transactions is clearly growing.

MasterCard began testing a mobile authentication method in the United States last year, enabling those making an online purchase to hold up their phones as if taking a selfie and blinking to ensure they are a live person instead of keying in a password or PIN. More recently, the company said it would expand the program to 14 countries this summer, including Britain.

The Amazon method sounds very similar and it is not clear what differentiates it enough to warrant a patent.

Others are also betting on facial recognition.

Alibaba is reportedly readying a service for its Alipay mobile payments enabling users inside stores to validate payment by matching a photo taken at the point of purchase to a store profile photo.

USAA bank is enabling users of its mobile banking app to access their accounts on their smartphones through facial recognition.

Southwestern College in Kansas has tapped customer identity solution Lucova and Fresh Ideas Food Management to roll out the FreshX application to on-site students, allowing them to enjoy easier checkouts without having to rifle for their wallets or smartphones (see story).

“With the rapid growth of many mobile device payment solutions – Apple Pay, Samsung Pay, etc. – the industry has seen an explosive growth in the utilization of fingerprint authentication to validate the owner of the card being used in the transaction,” said Ryan Grogman, vice president at Boston Retail Partners. “Facial recognition authentication, being branded as ‘selfie payments’ in the headlines, is another form of bio-authentication that will see some traction in the coming years.

“When Alibaba initially announced their entry into this solution space last year, there weren’t many details around how the technology would work, which led to questions around such scenarios as users holding photos to cameras to spoof the app or website into thinking the valid purchaser was completing the transaction,” he said.

“With MasterCard’s announcement last month, and certainly with the details contained within the patents filed by Amazon, we can start to see how these solutions will combat those potential concerns – in Amazon’s case, by having the purchaser perform certain live-action movements to complete the validation.”

A varied approach
However, companies are also piloting a number of other ways to leverage mobile technology to make payments easier and safer.

Google is testing the Hands Free app, which uses a smartphone application, location services and a cashier to authenticate a purchase without the need to pull out a phone or card (see story).

Pizza Hut, Virgin America and Fandango are leveraging Visa Checkout’s new spin on mobile payment checkout buttons that allows shoppers to make a purchase by swiping, reflecting growing interest in swipeable commerce (see story).

For Amazon, the selfie patent filing is the latest example of how it is looking to extend its ecommerce prowess as mobile’s influence continues to grow.

One important area of focus for Amazon has been the Internet of Things.

For example, water filtration product manufacturer Brita recently integrated Amazon’s Dash Replenishment functionality into its latest pitcher for a new connected experience that automatically reorders filters when needed, without the need of the Dash device (see story).

One of the promised benefits of image recognition technology is supposed to be its superior security. However, Amazon and others will still face some hurdles on the security front.

“They’re also going to have to deal with the inconsistency of the image created by changes in lighting, different positions for the device, the angle that device is held, and the distance from the device to the users face,” Aite Group’s Mr. Petersen said. “Images are complex and they will need to be able to distill key identity components in a variety of different environments.

“In terms of opportunity, the Snapchat generation is all about selfies, so it could enhance their user experience if that behavior can translate into commerce on Amazon,” he said.