Supermarkets using facial recognition cameras to scan shoppers to identify thieves face investigation by a watchdog after the first legal complaint against their use.
The Information Commissioner has been asked to investigate Southern Co-op’s use of live facial recognition cameras in its supermarkets by Big Brother Watch, which claims their deployment may be unlawful.
The group claims the biometric cameras are “infringing the data rights” of shoppers whose images are captured, as the cameras look for known shoplifting suspects to match against a database of known offenders.
The shop staff are alerted as soon as the cameras identify a known suspect, so they can either escort them from the store or monitor their activity.
Southern Co-op has installed the surveillance cameras provided by the technology company Facewatch in 35 stores across Portsmouth, Bournemouth, Bristol, Brighton and Hove, Chichester, Southampton, and London.
Nisa, Spar, Sports Direct, Budgens, Costcutter, Eat17, Flannel, Frasers Group are other companies that Facewatch claims are using its technology.
Big Brother Watch said Southern Co-op used facial recognition software with surveillance cameras from Chinese state-owned firm Hikvision, which also provides cameras for Chinese concentration camps in Xinjiang.
‘Dangerously intrusive, private spying’
Silkie Carlo, director of Big Brother Watch, said: “Our legal complaint to the Information Commissioner is a vital step towards protecting the privacy rights of thousands of people who are affected by this dangerously intrusive, privatized spying.
“The Southern Co-op’s use of live facial recognition surveillance is Orwellian in the extreme, highly likely to be unlawful, and must be immediately stopped by the Information Commissioner.”
In its promotional material, Facewatch says it can reduce crime by 35 per cent in retail stores in the first year of operation, that its technology complies with GDPR data laws and that images of shoppers unconnected with any crime are destroyed instantly.
However, Big Brother Watch said photos of shoppers who are not on any watchlist may be kept for days for Facewatch to “improve its system”, according to Facewatch documents analyzed in the complaint.
The group added that the facial recognition software used with the cameras, provided by the UK firm Facewatch, can be used to share biometric photos of “subjects of interest” with other companies that buy access to their system.
Shoppers’ photos can be shared in an eight mile radius from where they are taken from stores in London, or up to a 46 mile radius in rural locations.
Being on the watchlist for one of Facewatch’s clients like the Southern Co-operative could have serious detrimental impacts on someone’s day-to-day life.
Southern Co-op believes cameras are justified
A Southern Co-op spokesman said: “No facial images from the Southern Co-op platform are shared with any other organisation.
“Our limited and targeted use of this technology is only where there is a high level of crime and is used to protect our store colleagues from assaults and violence.
“Our process uses a combination of facial recognition technology and human verification. If a facial image match takes place upon store entry, these are flagged as an alert to the store or duty manager and then validated by a colleague in store.
“We would welcome any constructive feedback from the ICO as we take our responsibilities around the use of facial recognition extremely seriously and work hard to balance our customers’ rights with the need to protect our colleagues and customers from unacceptable violence and abuse.
“The safety of our colleagues and customers is paramount and this technology has made a significant difference to this, in the limited number of high-risk locations where it is being used. As long as it continues to prevent violent attacks, then we believe its use is justified.”
Facewatch said its technology significantly reduced crime and was used by retailers after other methods of crime prevention had failed. “We do not share the faces of shoppers – only images of witnessed and evidenced repeat offenders, nor do we use Chinese algorithms,” said a spokesman.
A Hikvision spokesman said: “Hikvision is committed to upholding the right to privacy and protecting people and their property.
“The UK Government recently rejected a call for Hikvision to be banned from the United Kingdom. We remain resolute in our mission to enhance safety for all.”