Legal Complaint Filed Against Co-Op’s “Orwellian” Facial Recognition


Big Brother Watch claims supermarket biometric scans of “thousands of shoppers” is “unlawful” and “Orwellian in the extreme.”

Privacy rights group Big Brother Watch issued a statement last Tuesday stating they had filed a legal complaint with the Information Commissioner claiming that Southern Co-operative’s use of live facial recognition cameras in its supermarkets is “unlawful”. The legal complaint, sent via the group’s lawyers from data rights firm AWO, claims that the use of the biometric cameras “is infringing the data rights of a significant number of UK data subjects”.

Southern Co-operative supermarkets use facial recognition software with surveillance cameras from Chinese state-owned firm Hikvision, which also 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.

Big Brother Watch is a UK civil liberties campaign group fighting for a free future. “We’re determined to reclaim our privacy and defend freedoms at this time of enormous technological change. And we fight to win,” their website states.

As reported by Ethical Consumer in January 2021, reports suggested that the controversial surveillance system was rolled out in select stores overseen by the Southern Co-operative as part of a “trial” since mid-2019.

Despite the use of facial recognition by police forces being deemed controversial with the Court of Appeal ruling parts of its use to be unlawful in August 2020, its use has been creeping into the private sector and the true scale of its use remains unknown.

While shops with face-recognising cameras display signs telling customers about their operation, no general public announcement was made before the trials started. the issue was only brought to wider attention following the publication of a case study on the website of Facewatch, a specialist provider of facial recognition systems and surveillance.

As early as 2020, the rollout left privacy advocates questioning whether the shops could fully justify the use of the technology under data protection laws. They also worried about creeping surveillance and the ability of police forces to access private systems.

Big Brother Watch’s legal complaint filed in July 2022 outlines how the Co-op’s system, sold by Facewatch, “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 supermarket chain has installed the controversial surveillance technology in 35 stores across Portsmouth, Bournemouth, Bristol, Brighton and Hove, Chichester, Southampton, and London.

The supermarket’s staff can add individuals to the facial recognition “blacklist”, making them a “subject of interest”. Shoppers are not informed if their facial biometric data, similar to the data held on modern passports, is stored or added to the supermarket’s blacklist where it is kept for up to two years.

Photos of shoppers who are not on any watchlist may be kept for days for Facewatch to “improve its system”, according to Facewatch documents analysed in the complaint.

The facial recognition software used with the cameras, provided by UK firm Facewatch, can be used to share biometric photos of “subjects of interest” with other companies that buy access to their system. Shoppers’ photos can be shared within an 8-mile radius from where they are taken from stores in London, or up to a 46-mile radius in rural locations.

Being on the watchlist for one of Facewatch’s clients like the Southern Co-operative could have serious detrimental impacts on someone’s day-to-day life. Big Brother Watch is urging anyone who thinks they might have been affected by this to reach out to them, as they may be able to challenge their inclusion on the watchlist.

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.

“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.”

Read more: Big Brother Watch Files Legal Complaint Against Co-Op’s “Orwellian” Facial Recognition, Big Brother Watch, 26 July 2022

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