Southern Co-Op faces legal complaint over facial recognition CCTV 

Big Brother Watch claims that the group uses biometric cameras which are ‘infringing the data rights of a significant number of UK data subjects’

Southern Co-Op is facing a legal challenge after a privacy rights group filed a complaint that its use of live facial recognition cameras is “unlawful”. 

Big Brother Watch claims that the group uses biometric cameras which are “infringing the data rights of a significant number of UK data subjects”.

The system, sold by surveillance firm Facewatch, reportedly uses processing of personal data to create a biometric profile of every shopper. According to Big Brother Watch, the supermarket chain, which is an entirely separate business from the Co-operative Group, has installed this technology in 35 of its stores.

It claims that the technology enables staff to add individuals to a facial recognition “blacklist”, making them a “subject of interest”, and that shoppers are not informed if their facial biometric data is stored or added to the blacklist, where it is kept for up to two years.

Staff reportedly use these profiles to create an alert if certain shoppers enter the store and share allegations of unwanted conduct between staff in different stores. Photos of shoppers who are not on any watchlist can allegedly be kept for days to help Facewatch “improve its system”, according to documents analysed in the legal complaint.

Big Brother Watch also claimed the group uses facial recognition software with surveillance cameras from Chinese state-owned firm Hikvision, which provides cameras for the CCP’s concentration camps in Xinjiang and has been “associated 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.

The software used with the cameras can reportedly be used to share biometric photos of “subjects of interest” with other companies that buy access to their system. According to Big Brother Watch, photos can be shared in an eight mile radius from where they are taken from stores in London, or up to a 46 mile radius in rural locations.

Silkie Carlo, director of Big Brother Watch 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.”

She added: “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.

“This is a deeply unethical and frankly chilling way for any business to behave and I’d strongly recommend that people do not shop at the Southern Co-op whilst they continue to spy on their shoppers.”

In a statement to Retail Sector, a Southern Co-op spokesperson said: “We would welcome any constructive feedback from the ICO as 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. The system does not store images of an individual unless they have been identified and evidenced as an offender, including those who have been banned/excluded.”

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