Co-op facial recognition supermarkets revealed

Big Brother Watch Team / January 14, 2021

  • Co-op supermarkets concentrate live facial recognition in 18 Portsmouth stores
  • Thousands of customers vow to boycott the chain
  • Privacy campaigners warn of “major legal concerns”

Eighteen Co-op supermarkets across Portsmouth are using live facial recognition to monitor customers.

The Southern Co-operative provoked outrage from rights campaigners in December when it admitted to using the technology in a number of stores.

Civil liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch has since discovered that the company’s use of face surveillance is exclusively targeted in 18 stores across Portsmouth.

Unmarked facial recognition cameras take biometric scans of customers as they enter the store. Customers’ faces are automatically scanned against a watchlist, compiled by the Southern Co-op and private surveillance firm Facewatch, looking for similarities to CCTV images held by the company.

The Southern Co-op confirmed that it does not receive photos from the police. The company collects still images from in-store CCTV of individuals staff suspect may be involved in theft or “antisocial behaviour” though they may not be convicted of any crime. The company is also using facial recognition technology to ban individuals from entering their stores.

Big Brother Watch says the Southern Co-op’s use of automated facial recognition raises “major legal concerns” about customers’ rights, and could result in a legal challenge. The company’s privacy policy does not acknowledge its use of the technology and claims that it does not collect any biometric data,1 despite its public acknowledgement that it conducts biometric surveillance.

Thousands of customers sent emails to the Southern Co-op in December and took to social media with the hashtag #StopCoopSpying, in protest against the retailer’s use of face surveillance, with many vowing to boycott the company.2 However, the company has not backed down from using the surveillance, claiming it is a useful tool for loss prevention and tackling abuse against staff.3

Police use of live facial recognition was found to be unlawful in a challenge brought by Dr Ed Bridges in South Wales, as police had not accounted for the technology’s problems misidentifying women and people of colour. Freedom of information requests show that 93% of the Metropolitan Police’s facial recognition alerts wrongly flagged innocent people as wanted suspects. Studies show that facial recognition accuracy is even worse when face coverings are used.4

Silkie Carlo, director of Big Brother Watch said:

“The Co-op’s use of Orwellian facial recognition surveillance abuses customers’ rights and trashes the company’s ‘ethical’ branding. The supermarket is adding customers to secret watchlists with no due process, many of whom will find themselves blacklisted despite being innocent or having spent convictions. This is an atrocious way for any business to behave.

“The best way to protect staff and prevent theft is to report crimes to the police, rather than expect staff to act like police using invasive biometric surveillance.

“The Southern Co-op’s use of live face surveillance raises major legal concerns and, if maintained, is likely to result in a legal challenge. If the company is serious about respecting customers’ rights and concern for the community, it should drop its facial recognition cameras immediately.”

ENDS

NOTES:

  • Please direct enquiries or requests for interviews to info@bigbrotherwatch.org.uk or 07730439257
  • Big Brother Watch launched a campaign to #StopCoopSpying in December 2020: https://bigbrotherwatch.org.uk/stopcoopspying/
  • Today, Big Brother Watch published a downloadable Stop Coop Spying Leaflet for the campaign
  • The 18 Southern Co-operative stores using live facial recognition are:
    1. Elm Grove, Southsea;
    2. Copnor Road, Portsmouth;
    3. Havant Road, Drayton, Portsmouth;
    4. Eastney Road, Portsmouth;
    5. Fawcett Road, Southsea;
    6. Francis Avenue, Southsea;
    7. Great Southsea Street, Southsea;
    8. Highland Road, Southsea;
    9. New Road, Portsmouth;
    10. Northern Parade, Portsmouth;
    11. Park Lane, Leigh Park;
    12. White Hart Lane, Portchester;
    13. London Road, Purbrook;
    14. The Hard, Southsea;
    15. Tregaron Avenue, Cosham, Portsmouth;
    16. Twyford Avenue, Portsmouth;
    17. St Albans Road, West Leigh;
    18. Winter Road, Portsmouth.