Co-op facing legal challenge of use of facial recognition technology

28-07-2022 | By Robin Mitchell

After two years of use, the Co-op shopping chain is facing a legal challenge over its use of biometric data to track shoplifting suspects and deny access to stores. What technologies does facial recognition allow, why is the co-op facing opposition, and why should such technologies be discouraged?

What technologies does facial recognition allow?

It is astonishing to see the numerous advancements that have been made in the field of cameras, whether it is their decreasing size, increasing resolution, high FPS, and ability to work in low-light conditions. It is also incredible to see how image processing algorithms have developed in tandem with camera technologies, with examples including smile detection, face tracking, and autofocusing, which have all helped to create powerful consumer products.

But one technology that stands out above the rest is facial recognition, as it can be used to power numerous technologies, including identification, security, and ease of access. However, before we look at the uses of facial recognition, we first need to understand the difference between recognition and detection.

Facial detection is the ability to detect the presence of a face, while facial recognition is the ability to recognise whose face is being detected. For example, cameras typically have facial detection so that they can keep the camera focused on the subject, but a camera with facial recognition would know that the face being viewed belongs to a specific individual.

As such, one of the biggest uses of facial recognition technology is security. Modern smartphones have the ability to recognise their owners and only unlock in the presence of their face (this saves time with the use of passcodes, patterns, or fingerprints). 

Another use of facial recognition is identifying people of key interest to the police. An individual who has been caught on camera committing a crime can be picked up by public cameras with the aid of facial recognition. This use of technology can help police to reduce the number of man-hours spent searching for criminals and instead make better use of time identifying other criminals and chasing up leads on serious crimes.

In fact, facial recognition technologies have been used to identify Russian soldiers in Ukraine to prove that they are indeed Russian (by linking faces to social media profiles). This has been advantageous in identifying friends from foes and providing evidence that Russia is indeed committing war crimes. 

Facial recognition technology is also finding its way into security systems that do away with the need for ID cards and passcodes. As ID cards can easily be stolen, access systems based on facial recognition provide better security, as stealing someone's likeness is no small feat (unless the technology seen in Face/Off becomes a reality).

Southern Co-op facing legal challenges over use of facial recognition technologies

Two years ago, the Southern Co-op chain of shops announced that it would be deploying facial recognition technologies to identify individuals who are suspected of shoplifting and/or antisocial behaviour. A camera placed at the entrance of the store can match the faces of those entering to a company database that tracks key individuals, and if a match is found, security can either escort the individual out of the shop or a member of staff can approach them to ask if they need help.

Fast forward to 2022, and new legal action is being taken against the Southern Co-op chain by Big Brother Watch on data privacy grounds. According to Big Brother Watch, the capture and storage of faces of customers is not only a breach of privacy but also has the ability to ban customers without any due process. For example, customers being mistaken for someone else could be banned from the store while being entirely innocent.

While the data produced from the cameras is deleted after a comparison is made, the original footage is stored for 72 hours in case of any incidences. However, it should be understood that most shops have some form of CCTV that stores all shop footage for the sake of crime prevention and is generally accepted by the public.

As such, the root cause for concern is not the act of taking images but comparing them to a database of undesirables that the shop would rather not deal with. As the database will likely contain additional metadata, each entry is effectively a profile containing some degree of personal data, and this may potentially breach GDPR laws (especially when considering that the data is being used to prevent crime when those on the database may have no criminal record and is thus a form of vigilantism).

Why should such technologies be discouraged?

Despite the numerous advantages of facial recognition in security and convenience, one only has to look at authoritarian countries to see how their use can corrupt society. One classic example of their misuse is how China combines facial recognition systems with their social credit score, whereby those considered undesirable are identified in public and prevented access to key resources and infrastructure such as flights, trains, and shops.

Another issue with facial recognition is how authorities can abuse it to access devices without user permission. Currently, there is no legislation that can force a user to give up passwords or patterns to unlock devices, but there is also no legislation against holding a user's phone to their face to unlock it. (A tip for those with iPhones, pressing the power button with any of the volume buttons for two seconds will temporarily disable FaceID).

What makes the situation with the Southern Co-op frightening is that they have created a system similar to that used by the Chinese social credit system. Those on the database haven't necessarily committed any crime and could be put on there for arbitrary reasons. Maybe a staff member felt offended by a passing comment, or perhaps the customer wore a t-shirt with a controversial belief.

Overall, using facial recognition systems to try and identify undesirables is undoubtedly Orwellian and something that should be discouraged. Facial recognition systems can be beneficial to society, but only if used ethically, and companies that create databases of customers and ban access based on arbitrary suspicions do not belong in a country where freedom and justice form the foundation of its society.


By Robin Mitchell

Robin Mitchell is an electronic engineer who has been involved in electronics since the age of 13. After completing a BEng at the University of Warwick, Robin moved into the field of online content creation, developing articles, news pieces, and projects aimed at professionals and makers alike. Currently, Robin runs a small electronics business, MitchElectronics, which produces educational kits and resources.