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Facewatch counters Big Brother Watch’s biometric surveillance claims, plans expansion

Who is and is not a shopper?
Facewatch counters Big Brother Watch’s biometric surveillance claims, plans expansion

Face biometrics company Facewatch was recently under the spotlight when privacy advocate NGO Big Brother Watch filed a legal complaint with the UK’s Information Commissioner claiming that Southern Co-operative’s use of the firm’s live facial recognition cameras in its supermarkets was “unlawful.”

The NGO further argued that these supermarkets are adding customers to secret watchlists with no due process, allowing shoppers to be spied on, blacklisted across multiple stores, and denied food shopping despite being innocent.

“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, privatized spying,” commented Silkie Carlo, director of Big Brother Watch.

Biometric Update has now interviewed Facewatch’s CEO Nick Fisher about the biometric surveillance claim.

For context, in the claim, Big Brother Watch suggested that, in the Southern Co-op face recognition trials, “a significant number of UK data subjects’’’ images were stored “for up to two years.”

From Facewatch’s response to the claims, however, it seems that shoppers’ images are only kept for five days and then deleted. Only ‘blacklisted’ shoppers remain in the system for a year, and then their images are also deleted.

“That is correct,” Fisher tells Biometric Update. “Big Brother Watch refers to thieves as shoppers. Shopper data is only a CCTV image, legally we can store these for 30 days, however, we only store these for five days.”

According to Fisher, thieves often repeat offend and do not pay for their goods, so they are not technically ‘shoppers’.

“The images, if uploaded, with a complete evidence trail, are stored for one year from the last offense committed,” Fisher says.

The CEO also addressed Big Brother Watch’s claims about offenders’ images being shared among shops. Specifically, photos of “subjects of interest” can be shared by stores with other stores that buy access to the Facewatch system (in an 8-mile radius from where they are taken from stores in London, or up to a 46-mile radius in rural locations).

“Facewatch stores and shares all the data, not the stores,” clarifies Fisher. “Stores do not have the ability to share data. Facewatch shares data with other Facewatch-subscribing stores proportionately by geography.”

The executive also mentioned that, more generally, all sharing of shoppers’ images “complies with the principles of data minimization and proportionality.” When asked to elaborate on that, Fisher referred back to Facewatch’s privacy policy.

The claims come at a time of apparent expansion for the company, which last week posted on Linkedin calling for new customers to join the “fast-growing” Facewatch community.

“Retail crime continues to increase year on year in the UK,” Fisher tells Biometric Update.

“The Police have openly declared that they do not have the resources to deal with retail crime.”

Fisher adds that retailers have also stated that CCTV, manned guarding, and tagging have proved ineffective in preventing crime.

“Facewatch has been able to demonstrate that crime significantly reduces where [its biometric tools are] deployed.”

More generally, facial recognition is getting mixed reception on retail floors across the world, with two retailers in Australia recently halting use of the technology, and another in the UK resisting criticism for deploying it.

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