Facial recognition cameras in UK retail chain challenged by privacy group

Shoppers at a grocery store chain across southern England are being surveilled with facial recognition cameras, prompting a legal complaint by civil rights campaigners.

The privacy group Big Brother Watch has submitted a complaint against Southern Co-operative’s use of the cameras, claiming it is “Orwellian” and unlawful.

According to the complaint made to the Information Commissioner’s Office, the surveillance system “uses novel technology and highly invasive processing of personal data, creating a biometric profile of every visitor to stores where its cameras are installed”.

The group said the independent grocery chain had installed the surveillance technology in 35 stores across Portsmouth, Bournemouth, Bristol, Brighton and Hove, Chichester, Southampton and London.

The system stores images of individuals who have been “identified and evidenced” as an offender, including those who have been banned from the store, and the images are held for a year from the last offence evidenced, Southern Co-op said. Individuals can submit a subject access request to check if this applies to them, the chain said.

The privacy group’s director, Silkie Carlo, said: “Our legal complaint to the information commissioner is a vital step towards protecting the privacy rights of thousands of people who are affected by this dangerously intrusive, privatised spying.

“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.”

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In a statement issued to the BBC, Southern Co-op said it would welcome “constructive feedback” from the information commissioner. It said: “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.

“The safety of our colleagues and customers is paramount and this technology has made a significant difference to this, in the limited number of high-risk locations where it is being used. Signage is on display in the relevant stores. As long as it continues to prevent violent attacks then we believe its use is justified.”

This article was amended on 26 July 2022 to clarify details of Southern Co-op’s live facial surveillance system. An earlier version incorrectly stated that biometric information was kept for up to two years.


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