- Big Brother Watch claims supermarket biometric scans of “thousands of shoppers” is “unlawful” and “Orwellian in the extreme”
- First known legal complaint against facial recognition in retail urges new Information Commissioner to investigate and “stop unlawful processing”
- Facewatch also uses photos of innocent shoppers to “improve its system”
Privacy rights group Big Brother Watch has filed a legal complaint with the Information Commissioner claiming that Southern Co-operative’s use of live facial recognition cameras in its supermarkets is “unlawful”. The legal complaint, sent via the group’s lawyers from data rights firm AWO, 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 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.
The privacy NGO’s legal complaint claims that this biometric surveillance poses “significant” risks to to shoppers’ rights and freedoms.
Southern Co-operative supermarkets use facial recognition software with surveillance cameras from Chinese state-owned firm Hikvision, which also provides cameras for the CCP’s concentration camps in Xinjiang 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 ban the cameras from the UK.
The facial recognition software used with the cameras, provided by UK firm Facewatch, can be used to share biometric photos of “subjects of interest” with other companies that buy access to their system. Shoppers’ photos can be shared in an 8 mile radius from where they are taken from stores in London, or up to a 46 mile radius in rural locations.
Being on the watchlist for one of Facewatch’s clients like the Southern Co-operative could have serious detrimental impacts on someone’s day to day life. Big Brother Watch is urging anyone who thinks they might have been affected by this to reach out to them, as they may be able to challenge their inclusion on the watchlist.
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. Research shows that the technology can be highly inaccurate, particularly with people of colour and women. Big Brother Watch’s research found that 87% of facial recognition “matches” in the Metropolitan Police’s trials of the surveillance technology in fact misidentified innocent people.
Silkie Carlo, director of Big Brother Watch 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 supermarket is adding customers to secret watchlists with no due process, meaning shoppers can be spied on, blacklisted across multiple stores, and denied food shopping despite being entirely innocent. This would sound extreme even in an episode of Black Mirror, and yet it is taking place right now in Britain.
“This is a deeply unethical and frankly chilling way for any business to behave and I’d strongly recommend that people do not shop at the Southern Co-op whilst they continue to spy on their shoppers.”
Alex Lawrence-Archer, Solicitor at data rights agency AWO said:
“Our legal analysis shows there are good reasons to believe that Facewatch and Southern Co-op’s implementation of live facial recognition technology is in breach of data protection legislation. And it could be causing serious harm to people on their ‘watchlists’.
“This kind of high-risk, biometric processing needs a strong justification, and it’s not at all clear that Facewatch and Southern Co-op meet that test.
“We also highlight significant risks of unfair bias and inaccuracy in the implementation of the system, both of which further suggest that it is unlawful.
“Our data rights can give us a say in whether and how companies can use technology to exercise power over us, but only if they are enforced. That is why it’s urgent that the ICO investigates this system.”
Spokespeople are available for interview. Please direct enquiries or requests for interviews to email@example.com or 07730439257
Big Brother Watch’s campaign page is available at: https://bigbrotherwatch.org.uk/stopcoopspying/
A copy of Big Brother Watch/AWO’s complaint can be found here: https://bigbrotherwatch.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/07/Facewatch-Co-op-ICO-Complaint.pdf