Big Brother - Picture credit: Extreme Tech
A report last week that a major UK retailer, The Co - Operative Society (Co - OP) was planning to install in - store surveillance systems with facial recognition capabilities, supposedly to reduce shoplifting by repeat offenders, caused quite a stir in the media and the privacy protection community. Normally this blog is all over such stories, but in this case with two retired techies on the team we decided to await developments because Ian and Xavier boith know how inefficient and easily evaded such technologies are.
However rivacy right campaign group Big Brother Watch have not reacted with similar sang froid. BBW have denounced the scheme which would capture and store biometric scans of “thousands of shoppers” is “unlawful” and “Orwellian in the extreme.”
The privacy rights group issued a statement last Tuesday announcing they had filed a legal complaint with the Information Commissioner alleging that Southern Co-operative’s use of live facial recognition cameras in its supermarkets is “unlawful”. The legal filing, 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 citizens and subjects”.
Southern Co-operative supermarkets have been using facial recognition software with surveillance cameras from Chinese state-owned firm Hikvision in trials. Hikvision also provides cameras for the Chinese Communist Party’s concentration camps in Xinjiang where critics and civil rights campaigners have associated the technology 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.
Big Brother Watch is a UK civil liberties campaign group fighting for a free future. “We’re determined to reclaim our privacy and defend freedoms at this time of enormous technological change. And we fight to win,” their website states.
Ethical Consumer reported in January 2021, that the controversial surveillance technology was being trialled in selected Southern Co-operative stores since mid-2019 despite the use of facial recognition by police forces being deemed controversial with the Court of Appeal ruling parts of its use to be unlawful in August 2020. Nonetheless advocated of facial recognition, backed by some of the biggest Silicon Valley tech conglomerates have been lobbying extensively for its introduction on a broad scale. Use of facial recognition has been creeping into the private sector and the true scale of its current deployment remains unknown.
While shops with facial-recognition softwate running on the computers their cameras a linked to must display signs informing customers of their operation, no general public announcement was made before the Co - Op groups trials started. the issue was only brought to light following the publication of a case study on the website of Facewatch, a specialist provider of facial recognition systems and surveillance.
As early as 2020 leaks about the rollout left privacy advocates questioning whether the shops could fully justify the use of the technology under data protection laws. They also worried about creeping surveillance and the ability of police forces to access private systems.