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Sampson talks ethics with Facewatch as biometric privacy concerns resurface

Sampson talks ethics with Facewatch as biometric privacy concerns resurface

UK grocer Southern Co-op has expanded its use of live facial recognition (LFR) to 35 of its stores, The Daily Mail reports, and has drawn allegations of breaching data privacy regulations for clear public notification.

According to the report, which is based on an investigation by IPVM, the facial recognition system supplied by cloud-based security technology provider Facewatch also raises ethical issues as it is powered by cameras from China’s Hikvision, a company mired in controversy in Europe and the United States over its involvement in an exclusionary video surveillance project in the Chinese region of Xinjiang.

Co-op has defended the facial recognition system, saying its use is limited as it is rolled out only at stores in areas more prone to crime, and that their operations are generally in compliance with existing requirements. No biometric data collected by the system is shared with any third party, the company says.

Data collection compliance

IPVM reports (subscription required and recommended) that it took photographs of nine Southern Co-op stores and found that one of them had no signage indicating to entrants that there is a surveillance system in place.

The report notes that seven of the stores photographed had small or blocked signage – in contravention of the UK data regulator’s prescription that such systems should have “prominent signage, clearly visible and accessible to members of the public.” Such signage, according to the data regulator, should be placed where it can be viewed before the users enter the area covered by the facial recognition system.

In December 2020, the Southern Co-op declared that all stores using LFR, then reported to be 18 locations, clearly notified customers and that the approach was compliant with GDPR.

Ethical risks concerns

UK Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner Fraser Sampson told the Mail he spoke to Facewatch about ethical practice and its importance for retaining trust in the technology last week. The Commissioner also noted that he has posed questions to Hikvision about its ethical practices.

“So far their answer has said very little but their response tells people a lot,” Sampson says.

As IPVM mentions, concerns have also been raised by privacy rights organizations such as Big Brother Watch, over the use of Hikvision cameras for the system.

In the wake of the IPVM report, the UK grocer has defended its use of facial recognition, sustaining that it meets GDPR compliance regulations and has a high accuracy level of up to 97 percent, among other points.

Apart from explaining that the camera signage displayed throughout the stores which have the LFR system and are reviewed periodically to ensure the signage meets requirements, Southern Co-op adds that only images of individuals evidenced to have committed an offence in the store are retained. The signage has also been “replaced” in the store found without it.

IPVM says it received no specific response from the Southern Co-op regarding questions on the use of Hikvision cameras and the ethical issues it raises.

The same report also recalls guidelines from the UK’s defense ministry advising against the use of Hikvision technology.

Call for probe

As the LFR system has come under question, Big Brother Watch, which has been campaigning for the Southern Co-op to put a halt to the use of the facial recognition for the past two years, is now pushing for the Information Commissioner’s Office to open a probe on the reported compliance and ethical breaches.

Concerns in the UK regarding risks related to use of facial recognition surveillance systems in public places have prompted ongoing public debate, but not a noticeable increase in regulatory action from the ICO.

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