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.”
• Spokespeople are available for interview. Please direct enquiries or requests for interviews to email@example.com 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