Laurel Demkovich

(Washington State Examiner) The palm of your hand, a scan of your eye or a recording of your voice may soon be the key to purchasing alcohol in some places in Washington, as state lawmakers begin discussions on using biometric data for age verification.

If they decide to tackle the issue with legislation, they’ll have to navigate concerns over privacy and equity and other questions about how to set guidelines for a nascent form of technology.

There is no state law prohibiting biometric age verification when purchasing alcohol, but officials on the state Liquor and Cannabis Board told lawmakers Tuesday that a state law outlining a framework for how it can be used is likely necessary.

“It bears further work,” said Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Des Moineschair of the Labor and Commerce Committee. “It is something we’re going to have to deal with.”

In July, the Liquor and Cannabis Board discussed proposed rule changes to allow biometric data, such as handprints or voice recognition, to be used instead of a physical ID when buying beer, wine, or liquor, but ultimately decided it should be left up to the Legislature.

Using biometric technology for age verification would be optional for both businesses and customers. If a business wanted to use it, they could partner with a company, such as Amazon, that offers the technology and allow customers to opt in with their data.

Denver’s Coors Field, home of the Colorado Rockies baseball team, recently installed Amazon One devices to scan customers’ palms for alcohol purchases. The Cleveland Browns Stadium also uses Wicket’s facial recognition technology to verify fans’ ages at NFL games.

Nowhere in Washington uses this technology to verify a person’s age, but some businesses use similar technology for customer purchases.

Hudson stores at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and Whole Foods Markets use Amazon One devices, which allow customers to swipe their hand in lieu of a credit card. Climate Pledge Arena, where the Seattle Kraken hockey team plays, also uses Amazon One payment devices.

Justin Nordhorn, director of policy and external affairs at the Liquor and Cannabis Board, said businesses are looking to the state for guidance before adopting the technology as an ID option.

If the state wants consistency in how the technology is used for that purpose, the Legislature should pass a law outlining the process, he said.

“We don’t believe we’re in a good position to develop those rules without some statutory framework,” Nordhorn said of the board.

Concerns around biometric data

Nordhorn said that the board is neutral on the concept of biometrics, but that there are some challenges and risks that will likely come up.

The use of biometric technology often sparks concerns about privacy and equity because of unknowns over who has access to people’s data and what it can be used for.

Marc Webster, the board’s legislative director, said a law that the Legislature passed earlier this year to protect health data set up some standards for how companies use, store and share biometric information, though most of the law only applies to certain types of health data.

In addition to equity and privacy, Nordhorn said the Legislature should consider how accurate the technology is, who oversees it, if there would be added costs to licensees and consumers, how it would work at self-checkout lanes and how law enforcement would use it.

Sen. Steve Conway, D-Tacoma, also questioned if biometric age verification could be confusing for consumers and businesses, who might not know what they need for people to make alcohol purchases.

“I’m concerned that by getting so many different ways of age verification that we lose control of it,” Conway said.

Sen. Drew MacEwen, R-Shelton, noted that the Legislature wouldn’t necessarily have to address every question about the technology before passing a law because some issues would be left to businesses to figure out before installing the software.

Lawmakers did not say Tuesday whether they would bring up biometric age verification next session but acknowledged that it was an issue that they will likely have to address soon.

“It’s just a matter of time,” Webster said. “We need to be able to adapt, and how we do that is important.”