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Privacy advocates poop on UK supermarket’s facial recognition system

The Southern Co-op chain is using the software to reduce assaults and shoplifting

A British supermarket chain’s use of facial recognition to detect potential shoplifters and protect staff from assault has raised alarm among privacy advocates.

The Southern Co-op chain has installed the tech in more than 18 of its stores in England, according to Wired.

The software, which is supplied by UK startup Facewatch, alerts staff when someone with a record of “theft or anti-social behavior” enters the shop.

“It gives our teams time to decide on the best action which is incredibly important,” wrote Gareth Lewis, loss prevention officer at the Southern Co-op, in a blog post on the Facewatch website. “Our teams have been trained to use the app and watch list software.”

Lewis said the company has completed a “successful trial using Facewatch in a select number of stores where there is a higher level of crime.”

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He added that customers have been made aware of the deployment “with distinctive signage” and that the system doesn’t store their images unless they’ve been identified in relation to a crime.

But the trails have sparked outrage from privacy campaigners.

“We are concerned that such a deployment at Southern Co-op stores –even at trial level — could mean that, in order to purchase essential goods, people might be in effect left with no choice but to submit themselves to facial recognition scans,” said Privacy International.

“We are also deeply concerned about the potential sharing of captured data with police, with or without Co-op’s knowledge.”

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Civil liberties group Big Brother Watch has also warned that the tech puts customers’ data and privacy rights at major risk. It also fears that the system could incorrectly flag innocent people as criminals.

The organization has launched an email tool that people can use to ask Southern Co-op to stop using the system.

“To our knowledge, this is the first supermarket in the UK to permanently install facial recognition,” the group said on its website.

“Let’s make it the last. This is a watershed moment for retail surveillance. It’s vital we stop Co-op spying now, before other stores follow suit.”

Published December 11, 2020 — 17:12 UTC