Co-Op facing legal challenge over facial recognition technology use

Big Brother Watch has complained to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) about the Southern Co-Op convenience store chain’s use of facial recognition technology.

However, while the campaign group says the system breaches data protection rights, Southern Co-Op says it is only using the Facewatch system in stores with a history of crime so it can protect team members. This amounts to 35 stores using the cameras across Southern Co-Op’s estate of 200 locations.

How do the cameras work?

The Facewatch system captures the faces of individuals as they enter the store, with the images then analysed and converted into biometric data. The system then compares this data against a database of people who, according to Southern Co-Op, have stolen from or been violent in their stores.

According to a Southern Co-Operative spokesperson, the database contained only people for which the business held evidence of criminal or anti-social behaviour and wasn’t a database of people with criminal convictions.

They told the BBC that previously banned visitors would be asked to leave stores, while those who weren’t banned but had a history of theft or anti-social behaviour would be asked if they needed help as a means of highlighting they’d been detected.

Campaign group calls system “Orwellian”

Big Brother Watch director Silkie Carlo told the BBC that the scans were “Orwellian in the extreme.”

Carlo added: “The supermarket is adding customers to secret watch-lists with no due process, meaning shoppers can be spied on, blacklisted across multiple stores and denied food shopping despite being entirely innocent.

“This is a deeply unethical and a frankly chilling way for any business to behave.”

The complaint that Big Brother Watch has logged with the ICO says the system contravenes data protection laws because the way information is processed is disproportionate to the need to prevent crime.

Text within the complaint includes the passage: “It does not bring serious criminals to justice… it does not protect the public from harm in any meaningful way.

“At best, it displaces crime, empowering individual businesses to keep ‘undesirables’ out of their stores and move them elsewhere.”

While biometric data is immediately deleted after being compared to Southern Co-Op’s database, the system stores the image for 72 hours in case an individual steals or acts violently during their visit.

Chain open to ICO feedback

The convenience store chain told the BBC it would welcome “constructive feedback” from the ICO.

A statement added: “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.

“Signage is on display in the relevant stores. As long as it continues to prevent violent attacks, then we believe its use is justified.”

Facewatch, which provides biometric cameras to other convenience stores, including Nisa, Spar, and Costcutter, as well as Frasers Group, told the BBC: “Facial recognition may be used where it is necessary because other methods to prevent crime, such as policing, CCTV and manned guarding, have tried and failed.

“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.”

Facial recognition continues to be controversial

Facial recognition technology has proven controversial in the past 12 months. While Facebook stepped away from such technology by shutting down its system, several schools have tried to implement facial recognition technology relatively recently, while France’s data privacy watchdog, CNIL, found Clearview AI in breach of privacy laws in late 2021.

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