Co-op doubles ‘Orwellian’ facial recognition cameras in supermarkets

Big Brother Watch Team / December 2, 2021

Co-op supermarkets across the south of England are scanning all customers entering their stores using controversial live facial recognition cameras.

Civil liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch, which revealed Southern Co-op’s use of live facial recognition last year, has discovered that the supermarket chain has significantly expanded its use of the surveillance technology which is now installed in 35 stores across Portsmouth, Bournemouth, Bristol, Brighton and Hove, Chichester, Southampton, West London and West Ewell.

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

In correspondence with Big Brother Watch, the Southern Co-op stated that it does not receive photos from or give photos to the police, which the campaigners said “raises questions about whether this is a genuine crime-focused tool or simply intrusive customer data capture”. Instead, the company collects still images from in-store CCTV of individuals that staff allege are involved in theft or “antisocial behaviour” though they may not have been arrested or convicted of any crime. The photos are stored on the facial recognition system for a minimum of a year. The company is also using facial recognition technology to enforce a blacklist and ban facially-matched 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 group says there are also heightened accuracy concerns in light of widespread use of face coverings, which studies show seriously impact the technology’s accuracy.

Thousands of customers sent emails to the Southern Co-op and took to social media with the hashtag #StopCoopSpying last year, in protest against the retailer’s use of face surveillance, with many vowing to boycott the company. The pressure on the company is expected to grow in light of the new revelations.

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 over recent years have wrongly flagged innocent people as wanted suspects.

In response to Big Brother Watch’s request to Southern Co-op for statistics detailing their number of facial recognition alerts, the accuracy of the matches and the related outcomes such as removals or arrests, the company refused to answer claiming it was “confidential business information”.

Silkie Carlo, director of Big Brother Watch said:

“The Co-op’s growing use of Orwellian facial recognition surveillance abuses customers’ rights and must be urgently stopped.

“The supermarket is adding customers to secret watchlists with no due process, meaning people can be blacklisted and denied the opportunity to do their food shopping despite being innocent. This is an deeply unethical and frankly chilling way for any business to behave.

“I’d strongly recommend that people do their Christmas shopping elsewhere.

“The Southern Co-op’s use of live face surveillance raises serious legal concerns and leaves them open to 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.”

NOTES:

• Spokespeople are available for interview. Please direct enquiries or requests for interviews to info@bigbrotherwatch.org.uk or 07730439257
• Correspondence between Big Brother Watch and Southern Co-op is available on request
• Big Brother Watch’s campaign website is at: https://bigbrotherwatch.org.uk/stopcoopspying/
• Reporting on face coverings and facial recognition inaccuracy is available here: https://www.theverge.com/2020/7/28/21344751/facial-recognition-face-masks-accuracy-nist-study
• The full list of Southern Co-op supermarkets using live facial recognition is below:

 

Portsmouth Devonshire Square

Portsmouth New Road

Portsmouth Great Southsea Street

Portsmouth Northern Parade

Portsmouth Twyford Avenue

Portsmouth Eastney Road

Portsmouth Fawcett Road

Portsmouth Tangier Road

Portsmouth The Hard

Portsmouth Winter Road

Portsmouth Copnor Road

Portsmouth Elm Grove

Portsmouth Tregaron Avenue

Portsmouth Drayton Havant Rd

Southsea Highland Rd

City Gateway, Southampton

Commercial Road, Southampton

Archers Road, Southampton

Church Road, Bristol

Two Mile Hill, Bristol

Ashley Down Road, Bristol

Redcliffe Street, Bristol

Whiteladies Road, Bristol

Western Road, Hove

Old Shoreham Road, Hove

Abinger Road, Portslade

Spitalfield Lane, Chichester

Shirley, Orchard Way

North Street, Bedminster

West Ewell, Ruxley Lane

Ealing, Uxbridge Road

Milton Road, Waterlooville

Castle Lane, Bournemouth

East Howe Lane, Bournemouth

Madeira Road, Bournemouth