Southern Co-op accused of using ‘Orwellian’ facial recognition in stores
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Supermarket chain Southern Co-operative has been accused of “unlawfully” using live facial-recognition cameras in its stores.
Privacy rights group Big Brother Watch made the accusation against the firm, which operates a network of convenience food stores, funeral homes, burial grounds and a Starbucks coffee franchise across the south of England.
It has filed a legal complaint with the Information Commissioner which claims that the use of the biometric cameras “is infringing the data rights of a significant number of UK data subjects”.
The legal complaint outlines how the system, sold by London-based surveillance firm Facewatch, “uses novel technology and highly invasive processing of personal data, creating a biometric profile of every visitor to stores where its cameras are installed.”
The supermarket chain has installed the controversial surveillance technology in 35 stores across Portsmouth, Bournemouth, Bristol, Brighton and Hove, Chichester, Southampton and London.
The supermarket’s staff can add individuals to the facial recognition “blacklist”, making them a “subject of interest”. Shoppers are not informed if their facial biometric data, similar to the data held on modern passports, is stored or added to the supermarket’s blacklist where it is kept for up to two years.
According to the Southern Co-operative’s correspondence with Big Brother Watch, staff do not receive photos from or give photos to the police, but rather use the biometric profiles to create an alert if certain shoppers enter the store and to share allegations of unwanted conduct between staff in different stores.
Photos of shoppers who are not on any watchlist may be kept for days for Facewatch to “improve its system”, according to Facewatch documents analysed in the complaint.
Big Brother Watch’s director, Silkie Carlo, 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, privatised 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.”
The system uses facial-recognition software with surveillance cameras from Chinese state-owned firm Hikvision, which also provides cameras for Uighur concentration camps in Xinjiang, China, and has been associated with serious security flaws.
The firm is banned from operating in the US and a group of senior parliamentarians recently urged the government to similarly ban its cameras from the UK.
Live facial recognition has been the subject of growing controversy in recent years, with moves in the US and EU to ban the technology from being used for public surveillance.
In a statement carried by the BBC, Southern Co-op said it would welcome “constructive feedback” from the Information Commissioner: “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.”
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