Regulator closes probe into facial recognition cameras at Southern Co-op stores

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The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has closed an investigation into surveillance company Facewatch over the use of its facial recognition cameras installed in Southern Co-op stores.

The regulator said Facewatch has made, and continues to make, improvements to its product after the investigation identified various areas of concern in its operation.

“Based on the information provided by Facewatch about improvements already made and the ongoing improvements it is making, we are satisfied the company has a legitimate purpose for using people’s  information for the detection and prevention of crime,” Stephen Bonner, ICO’s deputy commissioner for regulatory supervision, said. “We’ve therefore concluded that no further regulatory action is required.”

Southern Co-op has welcomed the decision.

“We would like to thank the ICO for its detailed independent investigation and praise FaceWatch for their proactivity in making improvements to their product and in upholding our high expectations,” the retailer said in a statement.

“Our use of facial recognition technology is an important step forward in our work to protect our store colleagues from unacceptable violence and abuse whist taking our customers’ rights extremely seriously. In the small number of our stores where we use this technology, there is just one camera at the store entrance. Using facial recognition in this limited way continues to improve the safety of our store colleagues alongside a range of other measures we’re using to tackle crime.”

ICO said Facewatch has agreed to reduce the personal data they collect by focusing on repeat offenders or individuals committing significant offences and improve their procedures by appointing a Data Protection Officer. It also agreed to protect those classified as vulnerable by ensuring they do not become a ‘subject of interest’.

The agency added that the decision does not give a green light to the blanket use of the live facial recognition technology.

“Each new application must be considered on its own merits, balancing the privacy rights of people with the benefits of preventing crime. We will continue to monitor the evolution of live facial recognition technology to ensure its use remains lawful, transparent and proportionate,” Bonner said.

Facewatch said the ICO findings confirm the right of retailers to protect their customers, staff and goods from criminal acts by using its live facial recognition. The judgment follows the recent decision of the UK Biometrics Commissioner to award Facewatch his seal of approval for meeting requirements for the use of live facial recognition.

“The ICO judgement and Biometrics Commissioner award underlines our commitment to best practice, both to prevent crime and protect staff and customers. The public and our subscribers can continue to have confidence in our systems and privacy safeguards,” Nick Fisher, Facewatch chairman, said.

The complaint against Southern Co-op was lodged in July last year by privacy rights group Big Brother Watch, alleging shoppers in its stores are being tracked by facial recognition cameras.

The regional co-operative started using facial recognition technology in late 2020 in stores which experience a “higher level” of crime.