Managing Editor, IFSEC Insider

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James Moore is the Managing Editor of IFSEC Insider, the leading online publication for security and fire news in the industry.James writes, commissions, edits and produces content for IFSEC Insider, including articles, breaking news stories and exclusive industry reports. He liaises and speaks with leading industry figures, vendors and associations to ensure security and fire professionals remain abreast of all the latest developments in the sector.
July 27, 2022


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UK retailer Co-Op’s use of facial recognition cameras faces legal challenge from privacy campaigners

Privacy campaigner group Big Brother Watch has mounted a formal complaint to the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office over uses of facial recognition technology in cameras in 35 Co-Op stores.

HolmesGardenPhoto-AlamyStock-CoOpConvenienceRetailer-2235 branches across Co-Op’s southern chain are using the facial recognition camera system provided by Facewatch, which is designed to “reduce store theft, creating a safer environment”. Branch locations where the system is in use include the likes of Portsmouth, Southampton, Hove and Croydon.

Facewatch says its facial recognition “may be used where it is necessary because other methods to prevent crime, such as policing, CCTV and guarding, have tried and failed. Any privacy intrusion is minimal and proportionate.”

In a statement to the BBC, Co-Op said it would welcome feedback from the Information Commissioner and outlined signage was on display. The company added that it takes its responsibilities on the use of facial recognition and customers’ rights “extremely seriously”, arguing that the technology had made a “significant difference” to protecting colleagues and customers.

The facial recognition system is said to only be in use in shops with a history of crime to protect staff – the Southern Co-Op runs 200 convenience stores. It captures the face of the people who enter the shops, with images analysed and converted into biometric data which is compared with a database of people who have stolen from its shops previously.

A spokesperson underlined that the watchlist was purely based on people for which the business had evidence of criminal behaviour, and was not of just anyone with a criminal conviction.

Those spotted on the watchlist would be asked to leave or approached by staff and asked “how can I help?” to make it clear their presence was known, according to the BBC.

Privacy concerns? “Extreme even in an episode of Black Mirror”

Facial recognition systems have not been without controversy, however. Perhaps best showcased in the South West Wales Police case, where a court of appeal ruled that Automatic Facial Recognition (AFR) deployments were not in accordance with the law, privacy campaigners often highlight concerns over invasive processing of personal data and privacy rights.

Silkie Carlo, Director of Big Brother Watch, which has raised the complaint to the ICO, commented: “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.”

Facewatch says its system complies by the Surveillance Camera Commisioner’s ‘Secured by Design’ protocols, using ‘bank grade security’ and is fully GDPR compliant. According to the vendor, signage alerting those entering a premises with Facewatch facial recognition in operation should always be on show, images are fully encrypted and if there is ‘no match’ to subjects of interest the data is instantly deleted to protect the data of the general public not on the watchlist.

Any footage is held for five days, compared to the standard CCTV retention period of 30 days. Further information on Facewatch’s facial recognition processes can be found here.

UK retailers using the system include Sports Direct, Frasers Group, Spar, Budgens and Costcutter.

The British Security Industry Association (BSIA) launched its ethical and legal guide for the use of AFR in 2021, designed to support security professionals better understand the complexities of using the technology.

In an interview with IFSEC Global, Ben Linklater, Chairman of the BSIA’s Video Surveillance Systems Section, highlighted that “it’s important to make sure that what you’re using it [AFR] for is fit for purpose”. The view of the BSIA, alongside made in the security sector, is that as long as applications such as AFR are used as intended, “AI could become a crucial tool in ensuring the safety of the public”.


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