Foodstuffs using facial recognition technology at 29 North Island supermarkets

You’re not only getting your groceries scanned when you shop at some Foodstuffs North Island supermarkets – the shop may also be scanning your face, Consumer NZ says.

The organization said Foodstuffs North Island was the only major retailer in New Zealand using facial recognition technology on its customers.

Foodstuffs, which owns Pak ‘n Save, New World and Four Square, said 29 of its North Island stores used facial recognition technology (FRT). It said it was justified as a crime prevention measure to help keep its staff and customers safe.

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 face print, which is compared to those on a database to find a match.

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Duffy said Consumer was “seriously concerned” New Zealander shoppers were having their biometric information collected and analyzed.

RNZ

Facial recognition technology is becoming more widespread in New Zealand.

“These shoppers may not know it is happening or understand the potential consequences of their data being collected in this way.”

A Foodstuffs spokesperson said, after a 31% increase in the rates of theft, burglary, robbery, assault and other aggressive, violent and threatening behavior across its stores, Foodstuffs North Island was undertaking a trial of facial recognition technology at some stores to help keep its staff and customers safe.

“The privacy of our customers is a major priority and Foodstuffs North Island has been directly consulting with the Office of the Privacy Commissioner on the appropriate use of the technology and our trial,” she said.

It had participated in the Office of the Privacy Commissioner’s consultation on the regulation of biometrics, including facial recognition in NZ.

Any store using, or trialling, facial recognition technology would have that signposted at the entrance of the store.

“Sensitive information is not being shared or stored,” she said.

“FRT info is not used for any other purpose than preventing crime and is definitely not linked to marketing.”

Liz MacPherson, deputy privacy commissioner for the office of the Privacy Commissioner said it had prompted Foodstuffs North Island to carefully consider whether the use of facial recognition technology was a “necessary, proportionate, and effective response to harmful behavior”.

She said it recognized Foodstuffs had a responsibility to take steps to keep customers and staff safe.

But it was not clear how facial recognition technology was going to achieve this, she said.

“As a result, we have been counseling caution given the privacy-intrusive nature of facial recognition technology and the inaccuracy and profiling risks involved.

“We are pleased to see Foodstuffs is undertaking a controlled trial before making the decision to use the technology on a broader and ongoing basis. It will be important this trial assesses whether the facial recognition technology is effective in keeping people safe, as well as the privacy protections put in place and any privacy risks to members of the public including profiling risks.”

It had asked Foodstuffs to provide details of the specific stores, so it could follow up to determine whether this use of facial recognition technology was happening in accordance with the Privacy Act.

Duffy said, based on Consumer’s inquiries, no other major retailers used FRT at present.

“We question whether the collection of customers’ biometric data is proportionate to the risk Foodstuffs is trying to address,” Duffy said.

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.

At the moment, the only way for a consumer to know whether their biometric data had been collected by Foodstuffs was 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 held directly from the company, Duffy said.

Jon Duffy, Consumer NZ chief executive, is concerned about Foodstuffs using facial recognition technology in its North Island stores.

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Jon Duffy, Consumer NZ chief executive, is concerned about Foodstuffs using facial recognition technology in its North Island stores.

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

When previously asked by Stuff in June, both Kmart and Bunnings NZ said FRT was not used in its New Zealand stores.

Choice found that in Australia, three out of four people were in favor of regulation to protect consumers from harm caused by the use of FRT in retail settings, while back in New Zealand, 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.”

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