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Campaigners lodge complaint over retail chain’s ‘Orwellian’ facial recognition

Big Brother Watch urges ICO to take action against systems that identify shoppers without their permission.

By Ryan Morrison

Privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch has filed a complaint with the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) over the use of facial recognition cameras in retail outlets, describing them as “Orwellian” as they are used to put people on watchlists without their knowledge.

Facial recognition cameras are being used in a number of supermarkets to check customers against a watch list (Photo: 1550539/iStock)
Facial recognition cameras are being used in a number of supermarkets to check customers against a watchlist. (Photo by1550539/iStock)

The Southern Co-Op, a chain of 200 convenience stores in the UK, is using Facewatch, a facial recognition tool that compares the biometric data of someone entering a shop with a database of people known to have stolen or been violent in a Co-Op store in the past.

A spokesperson for the company says anyone flagged as having been previously banned would be asked to leave, and anyone flagged up as previously showing anti-social behaviour would be approached by staff and asked if they need any help.

Big Brother Watch describes the technology as “Orwellian in the extreme”, and Silkie Carlo, the organisation’s director, said that the legality of such a system was questionable. It has called on the ICO to investigate the use of the technology, describing it as “highly privacy-intrusive” for people on the watchlist.

“We’re doing this on behalf of many thousands of us who don’t want to live in an oppressive surveillance society,” Carlo said. “We’re doing it so we can go shopping without retailers taking biometric scans of thousands of us every day – with some of us put on watchlists without our knowledge.”

Facial recognition apps in shops ‘lack oversight’

Southern Co-Op, one of several retailers using Facewatch, said it welcomed feedback on its use of the facial recognition software, telling the BBC it takes “responsibilities around the use of facial recognition extremely seriously” but needs to balance the rights of customers with a need to protect colleagues from “unacceptable violence and abuse”.

The same technology is used by Costcutter, Sports Direct, Spar, Nisa and the Frasers Group. “Any privacy intrusion is minimal and proportionate. Facewatch is proven to be effective at crime prevention, and our clients experience a significant reduction in crime,” Facewatch said.

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Carlo from Big Brother Watch tweeted that the problem lies in a lack of oversight. “Supermarket staff can make any shopper a ‘subject of interest’ by adding their photo to a blacklist for up to two years,” she said, adding that the “biometric photos are taken of everyone who enters the store”.

She said shoppers aren’t told if they’ve been added to the watchlist or whether their biometric data is being stored or shared with other retailers.

The ICO complaint says the system breaches data protection laws as the information being processed isn’t proportionate to the need to prevent crime, claiming it doesn’t bring serious criminals to justice or protect the public from harm in a serious way.

Co-Op says the data produced from facial recognition cameras is deleted after it is compared to the watch list but that they keep the original picture for 72 hours just in case the individual goes on to break the law.

Controversial use of personal data

The use of biometric data in any context is controversial, with a recent report by the Ada Lovelace Institute calling on the government to introduce new legislation and a dedicated regulator to monitor its use in the private and public sectors.

“We’re seeing a growth in the uses of biometrics in everyday parts of society and everyday lives,” Imogen Parker, associate director of policy for the Ada Lovelace Institute told Tech Monitor last month. “It goes beyond the traditional uses in law enforcement and into all areas of our lives, including school children having their faces scanned in lieu of payment in the lunchroom.”

The ICO has shown in the past it is prepared to take action on what it deems improper use of this kind of technology, and earlier this year fined US company ClearviewAI £7.5m for using biometric data belonging to UK citizens without their permission.

Proponents of the technology say it can help prevent theft. Speaking to Tech Monitor last year Nick Fisher, CEO of Facewatch said shoplifting costs small retailers thousands of pounds in losses due to the time it takes for them to notice a crime has been committed. Fisher said such crimes are often not spotted until stock checks are carried out.

“We only send images directly to our clients where the match is greater than 97%,” Fisher said, claiming that both automated and human checks are carried out to ascertain this level of accuracy.

He said demand for technology such as offered by his company is a reaction to a lack of police interest in prosecuting shoplifters. Research from 2017 by Checkpoint Systems found that 1,000 thefts are committed in UK shops every day but difficulty identifying the thief is often an obstacle to prosecution. For low-margin businesses like petrol stations, the impact of an incident can be substantial.

“Someone comes in and nicks £90 worth of fuel off your forecourt, you’ve wiped out your day’s profits,” Fisher said. “A lot of businesses build all this into their own shrinkage budget now.”

Read more: Unexpected face in the bagging area: The rise of facial recognition in retail

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