A division of the Co-op grocery chain in the UK is facing scrutiny after deploying a face-based surveillance system at a handful of its stores. The facial recognition cameras were installed at 18 stores run by the Southern Co-op franchise, which operates more than 200 stores in Southern England under the broader Co-op umbrella.
According to Southern Co-op, the system was installed to combat violent crimes at stores in high-risk neighborhoods. The chain claims that there has been an 80 percent increase in assaults against store staff, with most of those assaults occurring when staff approached customers suspected of theft. Facial recognition allows stores to create a watchlist, and the system sends a notification to staff when someone on that watchlist enters the store.
Southern Co-op believes that its system is compliant with the latest GDPR regulations. However, the clandestine way in which the program was introduced has drawn the ire of British privacy advocates. The chain did not make any formal announcement about the program, and did not publicly acknowledge it until discussing it in a post on the Facewatch blog. Facewatch is a UK facial recognition startup that provided the technology for the Co-op system, and indicated that the system has been up for 18 months in a recent promotional video.
The watchlist is put together by Co-op staff, who have the ability to add new faces following an incident in the store. Having said that, Facewatch does share its lists with other retailers, and if someone is added, their data will be stored for two years even if they are not charged or convicted of a crime. Both Co-op and Facewatch insisted that they do not share any information with the police, although Facewatch has had talks with law enforcement in the past.
While Southern Co-op said that it is not planning to roll out facial recognition at any other stores, Facewatch indicated that it has launched a trial with another Co-op division based on the success of the Southern program. Stores with the technology have signs to let the public know that facial recognition cameras are being used, but privacy advocates have argued that those signs do not provide enough information about the program and therefore do not constitute meaningful consent.
The news will only add fuel to a facial recognition debate that has intensified in the UK in the past few years. A Court of Appeals recently ruled that certain aspects of a police facial recognition program were unlawful, while the UK Home Office came under fire after acknowledging that it had deployed a facial recognition system with known racial biases. The UK’s Surveillance Camera Commissioner has since called for more oversight around the police use of facial recognition.
Co-op does use facial recognition outside of its stores to onboard customers using its community support program. The remote feature was introduced through a partnership with Yoti back in May.
December 10, 2020 – by Eric Weiss