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Facewatch caught in more controversy after closed-door meeting with UK Home Office

Facewatch caught in more controversy after closed-door meeting with UK Home Office

Biometric security company Facewatch, which has been facing backlash for deploying facial recognition surveillance in retail stores across the UK, may be facing another public relations problem.

During a closed-door meeting with the company in March, the UK Home Office agreed to advocate rolling out facial recognition in high street stores and supermarkets by sending a letter to the country’s privacy watchdog the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), a new report from The Guardian has revealed.

During the undisclosed consultation, Facewatch Founder Simon Gordon, policing minister Chris Philp and other Home Office officials discussed “retail crime and the benefits of privately owned facial recognition technology,” according to the meeting minutes obtained by privacy NGO Big Brother Watch.

The NGO argues that the meeting opens questions about government pressure on the independent regulator.

“The Home Office must urgently answer questions about this meeting, which appears to have led officials to lean on the [the Information Commissioner’s Office] in order to favor a firm that sells highly invasive facial recognition technology,” says Big Brother Watch Advocacy Manager Mark Johnson. “Government Ministers should strive to protect human rights, not cozy up to private companies whose products pose serious threats to civil liberties in the UK.”

The news comes amid mounting criticism from civil rights groups and members of the British Parliament against Facewatch and its biometric systems, deployed in nearly 400 high-street shops and supermarkets across the country.

Facewatch’s facial recognition solution, licensed from Amazon and RealNetworks (SAFR), aims to help businesses protect their customers, staff and stock by scanning people’s faces in real-time and sending an alert if a “subject of interest” has entered a store. The technology has found increasing adoption as stores report higher levels of shoplifting and other crime. At the same time, retailers have been complaining that the police are no longer taking retail crime seriously.

Responding to allegations that the Home Office is lobbying in favor of facial recognition cameras instead of more police work, Facewatch’s Gordon said that businesses had the responsibility to look after employees.

“It’s not the police’s job to look after your staff – you’ve got to take basic precautions,” he told The Guardian.

Gordon also defended Facewatch’s system saying it has few downsides. The images of innocent shoppers are kept on the system for 14 days. With the current accuracy of its camera technology standing at 99.85 percent, misidentification is rare and when they do happen, the implications are “minor,” he says.

In July 2022, Big Brother Watch filed a complaint against the company and food retailer Southern Co-operative to the Information Commissioner’s Office, arguing that supermarkets were adding customers to secret watchlists with no due process.

In March 2023, the regulator concluded that Facewatch’s system was permissible under law. But the Information Commissioner’s Office also found that the company’s policies had breached data protection legislation on eight points, according to documents obtained by the NGO, with Facewatch promising to address the issues.

Since then, the firm has been advertising on its website and social media that the regulator deemed it fully compliant with UK Data Protection law.” This month, however, the Information Commissioner’s Office said that its approval is overstated and requested the company to stop using its logo in promotional material. The firm also deleted the UK DPA compliance statement on its website.

In April, more than 40 Members of the British Parliament signed a letter to the retail conglomerate Frasers Group, which uses systems made by the London-based startup, urging it to abandon technology they call “invasive and discriminatory.”

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