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NZ shops trial facial recognition in response to retail crime

Privacy Commissioner to assess lawfulness
NZ shops trial facial recognition in response to retail crime

The New Zealand grocery cooperative Foodstuffs North Island announced it is implementing facial recognition in 25 of its New World and Pak’nSave stores for a 6 month trial. The company says the move is in response to a 34 percent increase in retail crime from October to December 2023 compared to the previous three months.

From October to December, Foodstuffs saw 4719 separate criminal offenses. “Shockingly, one of our security team was stabbed recently and our people are being punched, kicked, bitten and spat at,” says Foodstuffs chief executive Chris Quin. “We’re seeing over 14 serious incidents a week, including an average of two assaults.” Repeat offenders are responsible for roughly one third of all incidents.

The proposed system would use facial recognition to make biometric templates of each shopper and compare their face to a watchlist of repeat offenders. Those who are not previous offenders will have their images immediately deleted, the chief executive claims.

Retail NZ voiced support for the move in a release, citing its October 2023 crime report that revealed retail crime impacts 92 percent of retailers, totalling losses of over AUD$2.6 billion (USD$1.7 billion).

“Retail NZ members are facing increasing rates of crime, putting both their employees and the public at risk, as well as threatening the financial sustainability of retail businesses,” says Retail NZ chief executive Carolyn Young, who believes the move will also mitigate the impact retail crime has on costs and security barriers for customers.

Māori AI specialist Dr Karaitiana Taiuru is concerned that “Māori women are going to be more targeted both in risks to bias and risk to misidentification and also their personal data. Primarily the biggest harm will be to any indigenous people and people of color simply because the system is not designed or trained on their faces,” according to Te Ao Māori News.

“Even the most accurate FRT software shows that false matches are more likely to happen for people of color, particularly women of color,” said Privacy Commissioner Michael Webster, echoing similar concerns.

The commissioner will use his powers to oversee the trial, ensure the data needed to evaluate the system is being collected, and determine if the system results in a decline of violent incidents in supermarkets.

“At the end of the day, if in our assessment we consider it is unlawful,” because it does not meet the threshold of achieving goals for the public good, “we can issue a compliance notice directing an organization to take steps to stop using it that particular way.”

“There’s incidents of violence against staff which is never okay and is a crime and is something for police to deal with,” but there are only “a relatively small number” of verbal abuse cases out of the millions of customers Foodstuffs sees each week, he notes.

“We wouldn’t accept being fingerprinted and checked at the door before shopping for groceries – that sounds ludicrous – but FRT is a similar biometric process that is faster, machine-run happens in a nanosecond and creates a template to compare your face to, now and in the future,” he said, according to NZ Herald.

In 2022, 29 Foodstuffs supermarkets participated in a separate facial recognition trial.

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