Almost 50 MPs and peers have written to Mike Ashley’s Frasers Group, the corporate owner of the tycoon’s retail portfolio including House of Fraser and Sports Direct, condemning the use of “live facial recognition” cameras in the group’s stores.
Describing the technology as “invasive and discriminatory”, the parliamentarians, a cross-party collection including David Davis, John McDonnell and Tim Farron, have urged the group to end the use of the cameras across the country.
“Live facial recognition [LFR] technology has well-evidenced issues with privacy, inaccuracy, and race and gender discrimination. LFR inverts the vital democratic principle of suspicion preceding surveillance and treats everyone who passes the camera like a potential criminal,” the letter argues.
“The technology obtains the facial biometric data – information as sensitive as a fingerprint – of every customer entering the store to check them against your privately created watchlist. This is the equivalent of performing an identity check on every single customer.”
The letter, which was coordinated and co-signed by the privacy groups Big Brother Watch, Liberty and Privacy International, argues that as well as being wrong on principle, facial recognition technology is also “inaccurate and ineffective”. “To date, 87% of alerts generated by the Metropolitan police’s own live facial recognition system have been inaccurate. The poor accuracy of LFR technology also disproportionately impacts people of colour and women.”
Speaking to the Guardian, Davis said: “There are no rules: this is open season on privacy. Just this month, there was a case of Tesla employees getting into trouble because they were misusing photographs from inside the cars. It’s a good demonstration that even if there are promises made, you can never trust the organisation entirely, because human beings are human beings.”
The Salford and Eccles Labour MP, Rebecca Long-Bailey, another signatory of the letter, said: “The use of live facial recognition cameras to target customers is an invasive and abusive practice. For a hugely wealthy and powerful company to be monitoring people in this way is outrageous. The practice must be halted immediately.” The Ilford South Labour MP, Sam Tarry, added: “Private companies should not be able to reenact dystopian practices more fit for Orwell’s world of 1984 than a free and tolerant society.”
Frasers Group has been contacted for comment. Previously a spokesperson has said surveillance is carried out to “ensure the safety of our staff and to help prevent theft”.
In March, it was revealed that Sports Direct and Flannels, two of the brands operated by Frasers Group, were already using the cameras in at least 27 stores. The cameras scan the faces of every shopper, and check them against a database of suspected shoplifters, in an attempt to pre-emptively flag and either monitor or evict those who may cause trouble.
If staff desire, they can add the face of any visitor to the database as a “subject of interest”, and monitor them for up to a year. No criminal conviction is necessary, and shoppers can be added to the database on suspicion only.
The Information Commissioner’s Office has issued a warning about the use of such technology. Live facial recognition “could lead to unfair treatment of individuals”, involves “the automatic collection of biometric data at speed and scale without clear justification” and offers targets no opportunity to opt-out or control the use of their personal data. As a result, it said, “where LFR is used for the automatic, indiscriminate collection of biometric data in public places, there is a high bar for its use to be lawful”.
Other data protection authorities have been more explicit. In the Netherlands, the Dutch DPA issued a formal warning to a supermarket that had launched a similar system to Frasers. Cameras were used to scan the face of everyone who entered the store and compared with a database of people who had been banned from the premises, but the DPA said such a system was “unacceptable”. “Use of such technology outside the home is banned in nearly all cases, and that’s for good reason.”