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Southern co-operative faces legal complaint for facial recognition CCTV

Rights group Big Brother Watch has written to the Information Commissioner to “stop unlawful processing”

A close-up shot of a CCTV camera on a wall, in a brighly lit building

Privacy rights group Big Brother Watch has issued a legal challenge with the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) against the Southern Co-operative supermarket chain for its use of cameras that capture biometric data of customers.

Facial recognition technology sold by surveillance firm Facewatch is currently used in 35 of Southern Co-operative’s 200 shops. Big Brother Watch claim that this system is unjustified.

When a customer enters the shop, their face is converted into biometric data and checked against a ‘blacklist’ to produce an alert in the presence of certain shoppers.

According to the group, staff can add customers to a facial recognition ‘blacklist’ without first informing them. 

In the blog post announcing the move, it alleged that Facewatch documents state customers who are not added to such a list may still have their face data stored for several days to improve the facial recognition system.

Big Brother Watch claims that this “uses novel technology and highly invasive processing of personal data, creating a biometric profile of every visitor to stores where its cameras are installed”.

Southern Co-operative contends that facial recognition is only used to protect staff against customers who have previously been noted as having shoplifted or been violent with staff.

Big Brother Watch seeks an ICO ruling on whether this using facial recognition technology in this way is necessary to prevent crime.

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In a statement to the BBC, Southern Co-operative defended its use of the technology and rejected suggestions that it is not respecting customers’ biometric data.

"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," it stated.

Staff do not interact with photos directly, only with biometric profiles. A single camera by the door of each shop is used to capture images of customers entering the premises.

Facewatch also spoke to the BBC and defended the use of their cameras in shops. 

"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,” they stated.

"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."

Biometric data collection is a hotly contested issue right now. Earlier this month, a cross-party group of MPs signed a letter calling for two prominent Chinese CCTV companies to be banned from the UK use citing privacy and ethics concerns.

The director of Big Brother Watch, Silkie Carlo, took the group’s press release as an opportunity to condemn the practice in the strongest terms.

“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.”

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