Major UK chain stores Sports Direct and House of Fraser are facing criticism for their use of biometric facial recognition software. The technology is being used to monitor customers’ movements and behavior within the stores, but it has been described as an Orwellian surveillance tactic that facilitates draconian control.
Stores having CCTV and indoor security cameras is nothing new – having worked in retail, and been the victim of an armed robbery, I have experienced firsthand how useful it can be in prosecuting criminals. But the facial recognition software supplied by Facewatch is being used to scan the faces of customers as they enter the store, regardless of whether they have ever committed a crime. The software then compares the faces to a database of known shoplifters and other individuals who have previously been banned from the store.
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According to reports, the software has been in use in 27 locations for several months – but this has only recently come to light. Campaigners have raised concerns about the use of the technology, arguing that it is an invasion of customers’ privacy. It's also been proven in a Harvard study that facial recognition software is less accurate at identifying Black and Asian faces compared to Caucasian, which means that people could easily be misidentified and wrongly prosecuted or banned.
"Overt use of advancing technology is arguably more invasive than some covert surveillance techniques as it affects large numbers of people, in many cases without their knowledge," said Silkie Carlo, director of civil liberties group Big Brother Watch, in a 2020 report. "It enables surveillance on a mass scale [and impacts] individuals' human rights and information rights."
Rebecca Long-Bailey, UK Member of Parliament for Salford and Eccles, was one of almost 50 MPs to sign a letter to Mike Ashley, head of the powerhouse retail chain. According to The Guardian it stated: "The use of live facial recognition cameras to target customers is an invasive and abusive practice. For a hugely wealthy and powerful company to be monitoring people in this way is outrageous. The practice must be halted immediately."
Sports Direct and House of Fraser have defended their use of the technology, arguing that it is necessary to prevent shoplifting and to protect staff and customers. A spokesperson for Sports Direct said: "We are always looking at new ways to improve our store security and prevent theft. The facial recognition software we are using is an important tool in our efforts to achieve this."
The use of facial recognition in retail stores is a contentious issue. In the UK, there are currently no laws governing the use of the technology in public places – although the Information Commissioner’s Office has issued guidelines stating that it should only be used in a targeted and proportionate way.
Privacy campaigners are calling for tighter regulation of the use of facial recognition technology, particularly in public spaces. They argue that without proper oversight, the technology could be used to track individuals’ movements and behavior and infringe on their privacy.
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