Southern Co-op facial recognition

Occurred: December 2020

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The Southern Co-op operates over 200 retail stores and 50 funeral homes across southern England. A mutual society, it is owned by 130,000+ members who share in its profits and control its operations.

In December 2020, WIRED picked up on a blog post by Southern Co-op executive Gareth Lewis that 18 Southern Co-op stores had 'successfully' completed a trial in which shoppers entering Co-op premises were being scanned using real-time facial recognition cameras in order to reduce shoplifting and abuse and violence against staff.

News of the trial sparked privacy campaigners to express concerns about data rights and privacy, transparency, and increasing use of surveillance technology in the private sector.

Data privacy

According to the Co-op, individuals (or 'Subjects of Interest') reasonably suspected of having committed offences which have been witnessed by CCTV or staff members are added to a database, and their data kept for one year.

When a subject of interest is added, the Southern Co-op's facial recognition supplier Facewatch's system automatically alerts other retail clients within an eight-mile radius in London, a 15-mile radius in other cities, and a 43-mile radius in rural areas, thereby forming a de facto private facial recognition network, or set of networks.

Civil liberties advocates such as Privacy International and Big Brother Watch are concerned that Facewatch's cloud-based network may not to be proportionate, and is potentially illegal under UK data privacy law.

By contrast, Facewatch argues 'the privacy intrusion to genuine shoppers is negligible'.

Regulatory complaint

In July 2022, civil liberties group Big Brother Watch filed a complaint (pdf) to the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office against Southern Co-op and Facewatch.

The complaint alleges that the Southern Co-op and Facewatch process more data than is necessary for generating and storing watchlist entries, and that the two entities lack transparency about how they collect and process people’s data.

Despite Southern Co-op stating that 'distinctive signage' is on display in the relevant stores, rights groups argue the chain failed to inform customers sufficiently clearly, made a meaningful general public announcement before the trials started.

Big Brother Watch is also concerned that individuals are not informed if they are added to the Co-op and Facewatch's databases, despite the chance they may be innocent, and that there is very little visible information on what data is stored, how it is stored, the length of storage, and with whom it may be shared, including the police.

Nor is it clear how individuals can have appeal against having their data stored.

Hikvision cameras

In January 2022, the Daily Mail published details of an investigation by video research company IPVM that found that nine stores out of the 35 it investigated used Hikvision CCTV cameras.

Hikvision cameras have been widely used in the surveillance and repression of the Muslim minority Uyghurs in Xinjiang province, China. Facewatch says it is 'agnostic to the hardware and will follow the Government’s lead on whether to continue using Hikvision hardware or not.'

IPVM also found one store with no viewable signage, and seven seven with small and often obscured signage.

Operator: Southern Co-op
Developer: Facewatch; Hikvision
Country: UK
Sector: Retail
Purpose: Reduce crime, violence
Technology: Facial recognition
Issue: Privacy
Transparency:
Governance; Complaints/appeals; Marketing; Privacy

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Research, audits, investigations, inquiries, litigation

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