Let Me Take a $elfie

Let Me Take a $elfie

Tuesday 7 June 2016 - Ammar Thair

Have you ever wondered if you could purchase an item by taking a selfie? No? Well, me neither, but Amazon has. Reportedly, Amazon has recently filed a patent for the technology to do just that. What’s more surprising is that they’re not the first company to consider doing this, with news of MasterCard attempting something similar as far back as July 2015. Perhaps unexpectedly, this futuristic yet far-fetched idea may actually become a reality. Now I’m going to let you in on a secret; I can hear your thoughts, all of them, and right now they all centre on one word: ‘why’?

In a world where consumer payment is being streamlined as much as possible, with the phasing out of cheques, the advent of Chip and PIN, and the development of Contactless, it’s clear that organisations are fixated on making it as easy as possible for us to part with our money. Perhaps it should not be surprising then that in the age of the selfie (I’m sorry for having to use that phrase), Amazon and others are keen to modernise their businesses as much as possible to exploit this trending phenomenon. Amazon itself is a pioneer when it comes to keeping up with innovations and social trends, having utilised the technology of drones for a distinctly commercial purpose, in a pilot program to use drones to deliver packages in certain areas of the United States and London.

However, with this focus on swift technological advancement, one must ask, have we entered into a climate of easy spending at the expense of personal security? After all, an inherent danger of the financial system, and perhaps a root cause of each economic crisis has been the large-scale easing of regulations. Yet, this lackadaisical approach to regulation is now considered synonymous with a more dynamic and fast-paced global economy. Whilst it is clear that both the easing of regulations and the increase in speed has the potential to cause both legal and socio-economic problems, could we say the same here?

Legal ramifications of Contactless

Back in 2015, the consumer group Which? warned that personal data from contactless cards was potentially an easy target for criminals to obtain. The clear implication was that if someone takes your card, they would have the ability to make several purchases at face value if they were under the maximum limit. Further, they introduced the possibility of a criminal using a card scanner to gain key details from a contactless card, just by brushing past it.

However, soon after these warnings The UK Cards Association confirmed that actual related fraud was ‘extremely low’, amounting to under ‘one penny for every £100 spent’. They also stated that the rate of fraud for contactless payments is ‘far lower than overall card fraud’, and that most retailers require additional data including ‘the card’s security code, along with the cardholder’s address’, before they allow an online purchase to go through. Thus, both its presence and viability was accepted.

It is perhaps strange that the act of ‘tapping away money’ has become so carefree and socially ingrained. Soon after the use of these cards increased, so did the maximum spending limit from an initial £20 to £30. I was even left embarrassed recently when I tried to tap my card on the reader to buy a textbook. Horrified to see it was actually £30.99, I stopped tapping, and found myself apologising for even trying. Tap away £30? Of course, that’s fine… but £30.99, well that’s just taking liberties.

There is clearly a stigma attached to the advancement of technology and indeed the failure to do so. Whenever I hover my card over a reader, only to be told by the cashier, ‘Oh… we don’t have contactless, our system is not quite as advanced yet’, I always find myself uncomfortably smiling, both at my perceived ‘rejection of the old ways’ and the charming words of the cashier. However, the very fact that as a consumer I assumed it would have been implemented by now, surely illustrates societal expectation, that one should have sufficiently modernised one’s technology where the facilities do exist.

Crucially, it is perhaps this fear of ‘falling behind’ that both pressures and motivates companies to modernise, whether it be with regard to their payment technology or use of technology on a wider scale. For instance, Amazon’s drone programme, ‘Prime Air’, is described as a ‘future delivery system’, with ‘great potential to enhance the services [they] already provide…’ through hoping to deliver select packages in thirty minutes or less. Their greatest problem is that the commercial use of UAV technology is still illegal in the US. On Amazon’s website, they admit that putting Prime Air into service ‘will take some time’ and will depend upon ‘the regulatory support [needed] to realise [their] vision’. Congressional regulations in the US forced the company to begin testing at a secret Canadian site, 2,000 feet from the US border, and the plans also face public concerns over safety, package security and privacy (particularly given the potential for data collection via the use of drones).

Technology therefore is something that takes time, legal, and social consideration before it can truly be implemented. An article written for E&T (The Engineering & Technology Magazine) in July 2013 posed a question of whether contactless payments would ever gain full acceptance. Although the article referenced a failed prediction of the UK becoming a ‘cashless society by 2012’ (from the former CEO of Visa Europe), it described how the adoption of contactless payment was slowly evolving. Nonetheless, today in 2016 a sea change has undoubtedly occurred and with Visa’s contactless payments soaring by at least 250% in the UK, we have arguably become a ‘cash-second’ nation. The landscape of consumer payment has clearly changed before and it will surely change again.

Payment by Selfie: The future?

This brings us on to payment by selfie. Amazon already holds a separate patent for the ability to authenticate a user via photographic means. However, contrary to this patent, the recent application Amazon has just made relates specifically to payment transactions. While contactless payments and Chip and PIN have had the primary aim of making a transaction easier and faster, this feature is for something different: safety. Once you reach the checkout, you’ll be asked to ‘perform certain actions’ ranging from smiling or blinking, to tilting one’s head- a novel way to combat the hilarious image of an imposter, holding up your photograph to the camera. Furthermore, Amazon states that traditional passwords can be easily stolen, or indeed deciphered by a hacker, and thus such a unique method of authentication will offer a greater level of security for the customer.

Now, whether it would protect a person’s safety is one thing, whether it would force you to look yourself in the face and blink while you spend a large sum of money online, is clearly another. What is also clear is that exciting times surely lie ahead. Just imagine; you’re about to complete your online purchase when someone calls out your name asking for your help… Well, thanks to the good folks at Amazon, you could one day legitimately shout the words, ‘Ok, but first, let me take a selfie.’ Ah, technology!

About the author

Author: Ammar Thair