Consumer Group Says Major Australian Retailers Using Facial Recognition

A major consumer group has referred three large Australian retailers to the privacy regulator over what it called their use of “unreasonably intrusive” facial recognition on customers.

In a complaint to the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) published on Monday the consumer group Choice criticised the use of facial recognition at The Good Guys, Bunnings and the Australian version of retailer Kmart. Bunnings and Kmart are both owned by Wesfarmers.

Earlier this month Choice said it had asked 25 of the country’s largest retailers whether they used facial recognition and examinied the companies’ privacy policies, finding those three appeared to be the only ones on the list using the technology.

A small sign at Kmart in Australia alerts users that facial recognition is in use. Image credit: Choice

‘Inappropriate’

Choice consumer data advocate Kate Bower said at the time the retailers’ use of such systems was “completely inappropriate and unnecessary”.

The Good Guys said facial recognition is “strictly for the purposes of security and theft prevention and managing/improving customer experience at our stores”.

The Bunnings and Kmart privacy polices both state the technology is for “loss prevention or store safety purposes”.

Bunnings chief operating officer Simon McDowell that facial recognition was used for security after an increase in the number of “challenging interactions”, that Choice’s characterisation of it was “inaccurate” and that the technology is in line with the Privacy Act.

Consumer concern

The OAIC said it was reviewing the complaint.

The retailers named by Choice operate about 800 stores in Australia and booked A$25 billion ($17bn, £14bn) in revenues last year.

A probe into the matter would be the country’s biggest into facial recognition to date, amidst growing concern from consumer groups about its potential for privacy intrusions and racial profiling.

Choice policy adviser Amy Pereira said in the complaint that facial recognition brought “significant risk to individuals” including “invasion of privacy, misidentification, discrimination, profiling and exclusion, as well as vulnerability to cybercrime through data breaches and identity theft”.

Discreet signs

She urged the OAIC to take enforcement action against the retailers for “failure to meet their obligations under the (Privacy) Act”.

The group said the firms collected personal and sensitive data without consent and without clear disclosure of the practice in a policy.

Some stores have discreet signs informing shoppers of the technology but “customers’ silence cannot be taken as consent” and many had no alternative place to make purchases, the complaint said.

The group released a survey as part of its research finding that 78 percent of those polled had concerns about how their biometric dta was being stored and that 75 percent were concerned companies might use the data to create customer profiles for marketing purposes.

‘Faceprints’

“Choice is concerned that Australian businesses are using facial recognition technology on consumers before Australians have had their say on its use in our community,” Bower said.

In 2021 OAIC ordered Australia’s 7-Eleven chain to destroy “faceprints” collected at 700 convenience stores on iPads used to run customer surveys.

It also ordered US software developer Clearview AI to stop its practice in Australia of collecting images from social media websites to build profiles of individuals.

Matthew Broersma

Matt Broersma is a long standing tech freelance, who has worked for Ziff-Davis, ZDnet and other leading publications

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