Southern Co-op in face-off with privacy campaigners over security software

Big Brother Watch has submitted a formal complaint over facial recognition tech but the co-op says it it working to mitigate risk

A leading co-operative’s plans to combat crime using face-recognition software have sparked anger from campaigners.

Civil liberties group Big Brother Watch has submitted a formal complaint against Southern Co-operative after it installed surveillance technology in 35 stores where crime levels are said to be higher than average. 

According to the group’s submission to the Information Commissioner’s Office, Southern’s new surveillance system “uses highly invasive processing of personal data, creating a biometric profile of every visitor to stores where its cameras are installed”. 

Big Brother Watch director Silkie Carlo said: “Our legal complaint to the Information Commissioner is a vital step towards protecting the privacy rights of thousands 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.”

Southern operates over 200 stores, across Hampshire, the Isle of Wight, Sussex, Berkshire, Somerset, Devon, Kent and parts of Dorset and Wiltshire. The software has been installed in several locations, including Portsmouth, Bournemouth, Bristol, and Brighton and Hove, following a pilot project in 18 stores.

The move comes against a backdrop of an alarming increase in violent crime in shops, which has been a prime concern for the retail co-op movement for several years. Defending the new tech, Southern cites a 34% reduction in violence against colleagues in 2021 compared to 2020 and says the measures are part of a wider strategy to tackle crime. 

The society also says it has no current plans to roll out the facial recognition software beyond the limited number of “high-risk” locations where it is currently being used and will welcome “constructive feedback” from the Information Commissioner.

However, the controversy is unlikely to go away. Big Brother Watch is raising funds for legal action and lobbying for legislation to stop facial recognition software. There are also widespread concerns over its accuracy in detecting criminals. In the US, major employers like Amazon have cancelled its use and several cities, including San Francisco, have imposed a blanket ban of the technology.

Open Co-op co-founder Oliver Sylvester-Bradley, who specialises in sustainable marketing and communications, described the scheme as “surveillance capitalism gone crazy”.

“This is a complete invasion of privacy and the co-op should not be going anywhere near it,” he said. “It is just wrong on so many levels. There has clearly been a massive effort around installing this  software but how about  investing in a society where people do not need to shoplift?”

He added: “I think we need to take a long hard look at the way we are applying technology to the world post Covid. Just because we can do this doesn’t mean we should. We need to make the right ethical choices and what is happening is the antithesis of that. We should be using technology to help people fight impending challenges like the climate emergency. In this case, surely some kind of better community liaison would have been better than Orwellian surveillance.”

A spokesperson for Southern Co-operative said: “We take our responsibilities around use of facial recognition extremely seriously and work hard to balance customers’ rights with the need to protect colleagues and customers from unacceptable violence and abuse. As long as it continues to prevent violent attacks, we believe it is justified. 

Related: Southern Co-op puts £10k into crime prevention work

“The purpose of our targeted use of facial recognition is to identify when an individual identified as being an offender, or who has been excluded from premises, enters one of our stores. This gives colleagues time to decide action they need to take to avoid potential incident, for example, engaging in positive customer service and being present to deter criminal activity, or notifying relevant authorities where they have previously been banned or an injunction is in place.”

The spokesperson added: “We’re working hard to protect store colleagues from assaults and violence, but this is not at the expense of customers’ rights or co-operative values. The number one reason for violence against store colleagues and within the wider retail sector is when they intervene after a theft has already taken place. Using facial recognition in this limited way has improved the safety of store colleagues and our law-abiding customers.

“We are aware of Big Brother Watch’s complaint and welcome constructive feedback from the Information Commissioner’s Office. We have extensive procedures in place to mitigate any risks, and work with our provider to ensure the system is secure and operated in line with data protection laws.” 

Globally, there are wider concerns around technology and its invasion of privacy since the internet was founded. Most stores use forms of AI and computer algorithms to boost business, particularly through loyalty cards offering ‘points’ or targeted deals.

Sylvester-Bradley regards these as “the thin end of the same wedge as facial recognition software”. He would like to see the co-op movement using an entirely different marketing model and is currently championing the Co-op Data Club, which aims to support the co-operative economy by building a network of co-ops growing customer reach without compromising privacy. 

2019 research by the Ada Lovelace Institute highlighted that while the general public “fear the normalisation of surveillance … the majority support facial recognition technology when there is a demonstrable public benefit.” 

Consent is also an important safeguard for many, with nearly half of the public expressing the belief that they should be able to opt out of, or consent to, facial recognition technology. “In practice, this and other safeguards are often missing. There is a need to review and clarify the legal framework for facial recognition and ensure it keeps apace with public expectations.”

In July shopworkers’ trade union Usdaw said it was “deeply concerned” by figures showing a 21% increase in shoplifting in the 12 months to March 2022 compared with the previous year. The union declined to comment on this story.