Brave New World: Foodstuffs ‘trialing’ facial recognition technology for the past four years

by | Nov 24, 2022 | News

Consumer NZ has discovered that Foodstuffs North Island (incorporating Pak’nSave, New World and Four Square) is the only major retailer in New Zealand currently using facial recognition technology to scan shoppers’ faces.

Foodstuffs North Island told the watchdog that 29 of its stores currently use facial recognition technology (FRT). It believes the use of FRT is justified as a crime prevention measure to help keep its staff and customers safe.

“We know Foodstuffs has been questioned about its use of facial recognition technology by the media in 2018 and 2020,” said Consumer Chief Executive Jon Duffy. “Now we have uncovered the scale of its use in stores, we see it is being referred to, by Foodstuffs, as ‘a trial’. Four years is a very long trial period.”

Concerns about the unethical use of FRT have recently been echoed across the ditch by Consumer’s sister organisation Choice. Choice’s investigation into retailers’ use of FRT resulted in Kmart, Bunnings and The Good Guys all pausing use of this technology in stores.

“We are seriously concerned that New Zealanders are having their sensitive biometric information collected and analysed while they go about their shopping,” Duffy said. These shoppers may not know it is happening or understand the potential consequences of their data being collected in this way. Based on our inquiries, at present, no other major retailer in New Zealand is using facial recognition technology. If other retailers can operate their businesses effectively without using FRT, why can’t Foodstuffs North Island?”

FRT involves the identification of a person based on an analysis of their facial features. Artificial intelligence programs identify and map facial features to create a faceprint, which is compared to those on a database to find a match.

“We question whether the collection of customers’ biometric data is proportionate to the risk Foodstuffs is trying to address,” Duffy said. “The use of FRT raises significant privacy and ethical concerns. Aside from our sensitive personal information being captured without our knowledge, we also need to consider how our biometric data is stored once it is collected by a retailer.”

There are also well justified concerns that FRT may perpetuate racial bias.

“There are significant issues with the impact of FRT usage on different ethnic groups. We’re in the earliest phases of artificial intelligence and there are concerns around the accuracies of these systems, particularly in relation to how accurate it is when applied to certain groups in our society.”

Foodstuffs previously came under fire for its use of FRT in North Island stores. In 2018 the Otago Daily Times revealed the technology had been quietly introduced. In August 2020, New World Papakura hit headlines when customers were asked to remove their masks to enable their faces to be captured by FRT.

Choice found that in Australia, three out of four people are in favour of regulation to protect consumers from harm caused by the use of FRT in retail settings.

Recent research by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner found 49% of adults in New Zealand, increasing to 51% of Māori adults, were concerned about the use of FRT in public spaces.

“Shoppers deserve to know if their images are being captured as they go about their shopping,” Duffy said. “We know consumers have limited choice where they shop. Consumer NZ questions the validity of using this technology at an essential shopping outlet, like a supermarket.”

At the moment, the only way for a consumer to know whether their biometric data has been collected by Foodstuffs is to make a request for that data under the Privacy Act. If consumers are concerned about these practices, they should request any information Foodstuffs North Island holds directly from the company.

Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash

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