Amazon may be experimenting with a seller verification program in which people record video of their faces to create accounts and sell goods on its site, a sign of the company’s deepening investment in the powerful new technology of facial recognition.
An Amazon seller based in Vietnam told BuzzFeed News that he was prompted to take a five-second video of his face using his computer’s webcam in January as he signed up for a seller profile. Amazon seller consultants told BuzzFeed News they believe the company may be testing video to verify seller identities to prevent the creation of multiple seller profiles, a major issue for Amazon and its ongoing battle with fake sellers and counterfeit goods.
“We will record a 5-second video of your face," an Amazon seller verification prompt viewed by this person and shared with BuzzFeed News reads. "The video will be encrypted and stored for identification purpose. To proceed, enable access to your webcam.”
The seller, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation from Amazon, told BuzzFeed News he was not given an option to decline to submit a video of his face during the signup process. He also said he cannot find the video in his seller profile — or a way to remove it.
Reached for comment by BuzzFeed News, Amazon disputed neither the authenticity of the facial verification process it required of the seller, nor the screenshot.
The company, however, refused to explain its collection of sellers’ faces.
“Amazon is always innovating to improve the seller experience,” a company spokesperson told BuzzFeed News in response to a detailed list of questions.
Amazon declined to explain why or when it began asking some sellers for video proof of identity, in what regions it requests that proof, and what it does with the videos it records. The Seattle-based tech giant also would not say if the videos are processed by its Rekognition facial recognition technology, if a seller can remove video proof of identity from Amazon’s servers, and whether it has updated its seller agreements and privacy policies to address the collection and storage of biometric data.
In 2018, Amazon came under heavy scrutiny for its aggressive efforts to peddle facial "Rekognition" as a law enforcement solution without a rigorous training program and at a time when there is no case law or constitutional precedent to guide its use. The accuracy of Amazon's technology has also been called into question, most notably by the American Civil Liberties Union which found that Rekognition incorrectly matched 28 members of Congress to arrest mugshots. Those false matches were disproportionately people of color. And overshadowing these immediate concerns is a growing fear of the vast global erosion of privacy that could follow a wider deployment of the technology.
"Is Amazon using this data for purposes beyond seller verification?” asked Matt Cagle, a technology and civil liberties attorney at the ACLU of Northern California.
“Amazon should make it crystal clear they are not exploiting this sensitive face data to, for example, enrich the face surveillance product that a coalition of 90 groups just demanded the company stop providing to governments,” he added, referencing the company’s controversial Rekognition service.
Whether an experiment or the beginning of a broader deployment, the seller facial verification process described to BuzzFeed News comes as Amazon works to purge its platform of the scammers that skirt its rules to the detriment of Amazon customers. The company expressly forbids sellers from creating multiple accounts because it gives a single seller with multiple storefronts an unfair advantage over competitors with just one.
“There are tons of what are called ghost or stealth accounts,” Chris McCabe, a former Amazon marketplace investigator and owner of seller consulting firm ecommercechris.com, told BuzzFeed News. “Amazon needs to know there are actual people behind the accounts that are being created, and not the same person creating multiple accounts themselves.”
Amazon typically requires new sellers to verify their identity through several documents, including a state-issued ID, a tax ID, a business bank account statement, a utility bill statement, a business address, and business credit card.
“Everything has to match,” said Cynthia Stine, an Amazon seller consultant. “Sellers who fail verification are not allowed to reapply. They’re just finished.”
But Amazon’s required documentation of sellers to verify their identities still leaves loopholes. McCabe said he’s been told by sellers in China, for example, that they are running multiple seller accounts. He said some operations will incentivize international students to open seller accounts with their banking information and identification then hand over the reigns to the fraud seller for a payment.
“The good news is the intention is to keep things fair, the bad news is there may be civil liberties issues,” James Thomson, a marketplace consultant and partner at BuyBoxExperts, told BuzzFeed News. “The question is: Are there other technologies that don’t involve this kind of thing?”
Amazon has long been interested in facial recognition, as evidenced by its work with Rekognition and a series of patents featuring the technology. In October 2015, the company filed to patent technology where a buyer could approve a transaction using facial recognition and prompts to perform gestures in front of a computer camera like a smile, blink, or a head tilt. This way, Amazon said it could avoid being “spoofed” by a person who might try to trick the system by holding up a picture of the account owner in front of the camera.
Already sellers are prepared to decline to submit a video of their faces to verify their identities. The news that one seller was required to submit a video of their face sparked controversy among closed Amazon seller groups on Facebook where the news was first shared.
“None of it is safe. All of it can be hacked,” one Amazon seller told BuzzFeed News. “I don't really need my face in a database. It's very Orwellian.”
Another seller told BuzzFeed News that the additional security may “help with a lot of normal offenders and gamers but not the worst offenders that it is truly intended to filter.”
“Hopefully [it’s] not another example of everyone having to randomly suffer due to the need to crackdown,” he added.
The ACLU’s Cagle said “it would not be a surprise if Amazon was using facial recognition” to verify sellers.
“Instead of acting to protect against the very real dangers of facial recognition technology, Amazon is embracing it even as Congress, the public, and even its own workers raise significant concerns,” he said.