A convenience shop chain is under fire and facing legal charges for installing cameras with facial recognition software in 35 of its branches across the UK.
The cameras analyze and convert video face captures into biometric data. The data is compared with a database of people who have committed crimes in the shop, such as theft or violent behavior. Southern told the BBC that it only placed cameras in shops where there is a history of crime.
But Big Brother Watch, a non-profit privacy campaigning organization based in the UK, said the Southern Co-op’s camera system “breaches data protection” and that people visiting the shops may find themselves unknowingly being placed on a watch list.
A Southern spokeswoman said the watch list isn’t a list of criminals, but of people whom the co-op has evidence of criminal or anti-social behavior. Should any of the people on their list turn up at the shop, they are asked to leave, or a staff member will approach them with an offer of help, making it clear that the shop knows they’re there.
Big Brother Watch questioned the legality of having these systems installed, asserting that biometric scans are “Orwellian in the extreme.”
Silkie Carlo, Director of Big Brother Watch, says, “The supermarket is adding customers to secret watch-lists with no due process, meaning shoppers can be spied on, blacklisted across multiple stores and denied food shopping despite being entirely innocent.”
“This is a deeply unethical and a frankly chilling way for any business to behave.”
The group added that the system is not necessary for preventing crime nor to “protect the public from harm in any meaningful way”.
“At best, it displaces crime, empowering individual businesses to keep ‘undesirables’ out of their stores and move them elsewhere,” the complaint further asserts.
Big Brother Watch raised a complaint with the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), and Southern said it welcomes constructive feedback.
“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,” Southern said.
Southern Co-op said its branches with the camera systems installed have appropriate signage on display.
“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.”
Facewatch, the provider of the system Southern Co-op uses, says: “Facial recognition may be used where it is necessary because other methods to prevent crime, such as policing, CCTV and manned guarding, have tried and failed.”
“Any privacy intrusion is minimal and proportionate. Facewatch is proven to be effective at crime prevention, and our clients experience a significant reduction in crime.”
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