According to the 2021 Shopper Vision Study1 from Zebra Technologies, some of the main downsides of shopping are the checkout line wait and the pack and pay process. Therefore, rather than improving checkout, the Just Walk Out technology (JWO), developed and licensed by Amazon, removed it entirely, enabling consumers to enter a store, take what they want, and leave.
Amazon’s expansion plan for implementing JWO technology goes beyond its own stores and involves licensing the tech to other third-party venues such as Sainsbury’s and Starbucks. The performance of the solution was recently demonstrated in stadiums and airports, and self-checkout technology continues to attract retailers looking to answer shoppers’ needs and reduce costs at the same time. Moreover, new players such as AiFi, Trigo and Zippin are also investing in checkout-free stores by developing their own technologies.
This article will analyse the impacts of JWO technologies, balancing its data protection risks against the promise of a more convenient experience.
How does the JWO technology work?
JWO is based on artificial intelligence using image recognition from ceiling-mounted cameras, shelf weight sensors and deep-learning technology to detect the products that shoppers take from or return to shelves and track items selected in a virtual cart.
Before entering the store, shoppers are required to have a specific mobile application that processes information regarding their personal profile and preferred payment method, which can be made by scanning a QR code, scanning their palm or inserting a credit or debit card linked to their account with the supplier (which might sound contradictory considering JWO is meant to be a cashier-less experience).
The technology then operates via a network of cameras placed throughout the shop and sensors placed on the aisles and shelves, which detect what the shopper lifts off the shelf and picks (being charged for it) or places back (removing it from their virtual cart) before charging them once they leave the store via their accounts.
What are the impacts on data protection?
More than a convenient shopping experience, the real value of JWO technology is in the data it collects, since these technologies build up information about product demand and consumers’ behaviour while shopping.2
Furthermore, regarding data sharing, whilst retailers retain control of the data they collect and generate; when it comes to deploying FWO technology, they may have reservations about enabling Amazon to access such customer information that will ultimately help it compete with them as a direct competitor of all retail stores.3
From a data protection perspective, as recognised by the European Data Protection Supervisor, the technology does not provide at present any positive outcomes yet. Such a position may change, subject to the development of a different design and configuration.4 The same cannot be said of its negative impacts considering that the system monitors all of its shoppers’ data, often without further warning.
Among these concerns are the constant surveillance by default, the repurposing of a shopper’s profile, the lack of transparency and the lack of safeguards for vulnerable individuals.
- Surveillance and profiling by default
JWO technologies operate through a system where cameras mounted to the ceiling of the stores cover and recover every square inch of the store from multiple angles. Those cameras follow the shoppers around the store, but according to Amazon, no facial recognition is involved. Instead, all data is processed in-store or on the app and gets deleted within 30 days.
Nevertheless, for this no-checkout system to work, shoppers are heavily tracked while moving around a store and they are being profiled based on their account details, credit card information but also their behaviour. This, per se, implies a massive collection of personal data and might generate a feeling of being under constant surveillance.5
Accordingly, as well addressed by Devin Coldewey in his article Inside Amazon’s surveillance-powered, no-checkout convenience store, “a convenience store you just walk out of is a friendly mask on the face of a highly controversial application of technology: ubiquitous personal surveillance.” 6
- Repurposing of the shoppers’ profile
To use the JWO solution, the shopper needs to have an Amazon account. Thus, the company knows who they are and what else they are buying in other locations. Amazon can then send personalised offers or recommendations based on what shoppers are purchasing (or not).
Amazon advertises that JWO technology provides new insights into how products are considered and purchased. The solution enables Amazon to access and better understand consumers’ behaviour and preferences. This is through the linkage of all data collected – not only through costumer’s profiles and behaviour while in its physical stores, but in some cases also with the day-to-day conversations and habits collected through other devices such as Alexa. With all data gathered, the company can predict other aspects of their personal lives, such as dietary requirements, health information such as birth control and fertility, music habits, and so on and sell this information to other companies. Thus, this constant profiling could ultimately be abused for purposes such as direct marketing and target advertising.7
- Lack of transparency
Although Amazon claims that despite having hundreds of cameras placed around the store, they don’t use facial recognition technology, the transparency measures still seem insufficient considering the communications to the public and the information available in privacy notices.
The JWO’s privacy notice, for example, is placed within Amazon’s general privacy notice on its website,8 which looks more like a ticked-box requirement than an informative statement for its data subjects. That is because this privacy notice does not provide any further detail or information regarding cameras use and how personal data are effectively processed in the stores, leaving it unclear to data subjects for how long and how their images, amongst other personal data, are used, and how they can exercise their rights.
- Lack of safeguards for vulnerable subjects:
When processing personal data of every person who enters the shop, the technology indistinctly processes personal data of vulnerable subjects, which, especially when considering children, poses privacy rights and data protection issues.
That is because children enjoy special protection under the General Data Protection Regulation (Article 8 GDPR), as they are considered vulnerable, so they may be less aware than adults of the risks and consequences of sharing their personal information. Thus, transparency and accountability are critical in this case, considering processing children’s data without additional safeguards exacerbates data protection issues.
- 2021 Shopper Vision Study- https://connect.zebra.com/Shop2021_us
- https://www.modernretail.co/retailers/while-amazon-tries-to-grow-its-just-walk-out-technology-competitors-are-thriving/. Accessed on 17/03/2023.
- European Data Protection Supervisor, Just Walk Out Technology – https://edps.europa.eu/press-publications/publications/techsonar/just-walk-out-technology_en. Accessed on 17/03/2023.
- Devin Coldewey, Inside Amazon’s surveillance-powered, no-checkout convenience store – https://techcrunch.com/2018/01/21/inside-amazons-surveillance-powered-no-checkout-convenience-store/