Southern Co-op trials facial recognition tech for store security

The news has sparked concern among privacy campaigners but the co-op says the project has improved the safety of its colleagues

Independent retail society Southern Co-op is trialling facial recognition technology in 18 of its food stores as part of its ramped-up security measures.

Like several other retail societies, Southern has suffered an increase in verbal abuse and physical assaults on colleagues and it says the measure is being tested to protect its workers.

The tech, from security company Facewatch, alerts staff when someone enters the store with a past record of theft or anti-social behaviour.

Gareth Lewis, loss prevention officer at Southern, said in a blog post on the Facewatch website that the system has “helped reduce theft in the stores where it is deployed”.

“We have completed a successful trial using Facewatch FR in a select number of stores where there is a higher level of crime,” he said. “All of our customers have been made aware with distinctive signage and we have introduced a system which does not store images of our customers unless they have been identified in relation to a crime.

“This ensures it is GDPR compliant whilst also allowing us to gather evidence against more prolific thieves in our stores before entering in discussions with the local police.

“The system alerts our store teams immediately when someone enters their store who has a past record of theft or anti-social behaviour. It gives our teams time to decide on the best action which is incredibly important. Our teams have been trained to use the App and watch list software.”

The news has sparked concern among civil liberties campaigners, with Privacy International – a London-based charity “that works at the intersection of modern technologies and rights” writing an open letter to the co-op.

It wrote: “We are concerned that such a deployment at Southern Co-op stores – even at trial level – could mean that, in order to purchase essential goods, people might be in effect left with no choice but to submit themselves to facial recognition scans. 

“We are also deeply concerned about the potential sharing of captured data with police, with or without Southern Co-op’s knowledge.”

It asked Southern to confirm

  • Whether it has reviewed any privacy as well as any other fundamental rights concerns related to the use of Facewatch, and if so, what the outcome of that review was;
  • Whether it believes the legal framework governing its stores’ use of Facewatch is currently sufficiently clear and able to satisfy data protection law;
  • Whether it is aware if Facewatch has in fact entered into such a data sharing agreement with any police force and whether it will investigate the matter.

Another civil rights group, Big Brother Watch, also voiced its concern. Director Silkie Carlo said: “This surveillance is well-known to suffer from severe inaccuracy and biases, leading to innocent people being wrongly flagged and put on criminal databases.

“Live facial recognition is more commonly seen in dictatorships than democracies. This is a serious error of judgement by Southern Co-op and we urge them to drop these Big Brother-style cameras immediately.”

In a statement on its website, Southern Co-operative said there were clear signs about the system in the stores involved in the trial and it was GDPR-compliant. It added that no data had been shared with police; Facewatch has also issued statements to say that data is not shared with the police.

“Already this year we have seen an 80% increase in assaults and violence against our store colleagues. This is not acceptable. We’re working hard to protect them but this is not at the expense of our customers rights.

“We have more than 200 stores across the south and have focused the use of facial recognition in 18 branches where there is a higher level of crime. The system is GDPR compliant and does not store images of an individual unless they have been identified as a repeat offender.

“The purpose of our limited and targeted use of facial recognition is to identify when a known repeat offender enters one of our stores. This gives our colleagues time to decide on any action they need to take, for example, asking them to politely leave the premises or notifying police if this is a breach of a banning order. All of our customers at the 18 stores have been made aware with distinctive signage.”

Southern said the main trigger for violence in stores was when staff intervene after a theft had taken place. “Using facial recognition in this limited way has improved the safety of our store colleagues,” it added.

“No facial images are shared with the police or with any other organisation, nor are any other organisation’s images shared with us for use within facial recognition,” it said. “Only images of individuals known to have offended within our premises, including those who have been banned/excluded, are used on our facial recognition platform.

“Any further use of facial recognition will be limited and we have no plans to roll this out across all of our stores.”

The retailer added that facial recognition is just one of the tools it is using to tackle crime “from every angle – causes, prevention, reporting and justice”.