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New Zealand’s privacy watchdog investigating facial recognition, promises tougher regulation

New Zealand’s privacy watchdog investigating facial recognition, promises tougher regulation

New Zealand’s privacy watchdog wants tougher regulation covering the use of biometrics and AI technology such as facial recognition.

New legislation may also be on the table. Privacy Commissioner Michael Webster promised to publish a draft biometrics code this autumn, according to Radio New Zealand (RNZ).

“However, the cross-cutting issues raised by biometrics are such that legislative amendments may also be necessary to safeguard this sensitive personal information,” Webster says.

The move comes amid a record surge in privacy complaints of 79 percent within the last financial year. One of the most high-profile cases is facial recognition technology (FRT) trials conducted by grocery cooperative Foodstuffs which plans to implement the technology in 25 stores over a period of six months to combat retail crime.

On Thursday, Privacy Commissioner Michael Webster launched an investigation into Foodstuff’s facial recognition trial, examining its compliance with the country’s Privacy Act.

“At the end of the six-month trial I will be assessing the evidence that the use of FRT is justified,” Webster says. “Has it made a practical and statistically significant difference to the incidence of retail crime in Foodstuffs North Island supermarkets relative to other less intrusive options?”

The inquiry will monitor privacy and data protection safeguards implemented by the 25 stores introducing the technology, as well as potential biases and accuracy issues, staff training and how the stores handle cases of identifying a person on the system’s watchlist. The privacy office will also review whether shoppers are confident their data is being used safely.

“There are two parts to the inquiry,” Webster told RNZ.  “The first is to monitor the way the stores are running the trials to ensure that it’s compliant with the Privacy Act.”

As part of it, the watchdog will be examining whether adequate warning signs are displayed and how the stores handle biometric data. The second part of the inquiry will examine the effectiveness of using facial recognition in reducing harmful behavior.

“We really do need some clear statistical evidence,” he says. The Commissioner, however, declined to share which rate of crime reduction would be considered statistically significant.

Aside from more stringent regulation, the Privacy Commissioner Office is also hoping to introduce heavier penalties for breaches. The highest fine according to the Privacy Act is only around NZ$ 10,000 (US$ 6,019) while privacy breaches carry no offense.

Webster also says that its office has been operating on limited resources – A grant of NZ$8.1 million (US$ 4.9 million) and a staff of 51.

“We do not believe we can fully deliver on our statutory responsibilities and meet the expectations of citizens and organizations with our current funding and powers,” he says.

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