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Co-op using facial recognition tech to scan and track shoppers

Kalila Sangster
·4-min read
CCTV security camera with abstract blurred food court background
Southern Co-op used the facial recognition technology to catch shoplifters and improve safety for staff. Photo: Getty

Co-op has been using real-time facial recognition cameras to scan shoppers entering some of its stores.

In total 18 shops from the Southern Co-op franchise located in the south of England have trialled the technology to try to tackle shoplifting and abuse against staff.

As a result of the trials, other regional Co-op franchises are now believed to be trying out facial recognition systems, according to Wired.co.uk.

The facial recognition technology was introduced into Co-op stores for limited trials over the the last 18 months.

Shops using the face recognising cameras displayed signs informing customers that the technology was in operation in store.

However, no general public announcement was made before the trials started, leading to questions of whether shops can fully justify the use of the technology under data protection laws and concerns about creeping surveillance and the ability of police forces to access private systems.

The facial recognition technology used by Southern Co-op is from London-based startup Facewatch.

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“The system alerts our store teams immediately when someone enters their store who has a past record of theft or anti-social behaviour,” Gareth Lewis, Southern Co-op’s loss prevention officer wrote in a blog post on the Facewatch website. Use of the technology has been “successful,” he said.

The tech has “diverted over 3,000 incidents of theft,” Lewis said in a Facewatch promotional video published in October.

The technology works by scanning people’s faces when they enter a store creating CCTV images that are converted to numerical data and compared against a watchlist of “suspects” to see if there’s a match. If the tech finds a match, store staff receive a notification to their smartphones.

The lack of transparency around the creation of watchlists and who could be on them was criticised by the Court of Appeal in August when it ruled that the use of automatic facial recognition technology by South Wales Police was unlawful.

The Facewatch system doesn’t store or add everyone’s faces to a central database but instead amalgamates watchlists created by the companies it works with. People added to watchlists can be individuals “reasonably suspected” of carrying out crimes, which have been witnessed by CCTV or staff members. A person does not have to be charged or convicted with a crime to be flagged and their data is kept for two years, according to Wired.co.uk.

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A Co-op spokesperson told Wired.co.uk that its “limited and targeted” use of facial recognition is to “identify when a known repeat offender enters one of our stores.”

“Only images of individuals known to have offended within our premises, including those who have been banned/excluded, are used on our facial recognition platform,” the spokesperson said. “Using facial recognition in this limited way has improved the safety of our store colleagues.”

“This gives our colleagues time to decide on any action they need to take, for example, asking them to politely leave the premises or notifying police if this is a breach of a banning order,” the spokesperson says.

There has been an 80% increase in assaults and violence against store staff in 2020, particularly when staff try to apprehend shoplifters, according to Southern Co-op.

They said the retailer is not planning on introducing the tech to all of its Southern Co-op stores.

The UK’s data protection regulator, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), said companies must only use these systems if there is clear evidence that there’s a legal basis for them.

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“Public support for the police using facial recognition to catch criminals is high, but less so when it comes to the private sector operating the technology in a quasi-law enforcement capacity,” an ICO spokesperson said. The ICO is investigating where live facial recognition is being used in the private sector and expects to report its findings early next year.

“You still need to be necessary and proportionate. Using an extremely intrusive technology to scan people's faces without them being 100% aware of the consequences and without them having the choice to provide explicit, freely given, informed and unambiguous consent, it's a no go,” said Ioannis Kouvakas, a legal officer at NGO Privacy International.

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