Australian Retailer Pauses Facial Recognition Trial

Australian appliance chain The Good Guys said on Tuesday it would pause a trial of facial recognition technology after consumer group Choice referred it to the privacy regulator for possible enforcement action.

The Good Guys “will pause the trial of the upgraded security system with the optional facial recognition technology being conducted in two of its Melbourne stores,” said parent company JB Hi-Fi in a statement.

The company added that it takes the confidentiality of personal information seriously and is confident it complied with relevant laws, but would “pause the trial at this time pending any clarification from the OAIC (Office of the Australian Information Commissioner) regarding the use of this technology”.

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

Official complaint

Choice had also referred two othe retailers to the OAIC, Bunnings and the Australian version of international retailer Kmart, which are both owned by Wesfarmers.

The complaint was made public on Monday.

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.

Choice said the retailers’ use of such systems was “completely inappropriate and unnecessary”.

‘Purposes of security’

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 policies 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.

The OAIC said it was reviewing the complaint.

Privacy fears

Australia is a leader in the use of facial recognition by government and law-enforcement authorities, with the country’s Department of Home Affairs building a national facial recognition database since 2016 and putting out a tender for a company to “build and deploy” the data in January.

During the Covid-19 pandemic police in several Australian states have trialled the use of facial recognition smartphone apps to enforce quarantine measures, even as many other countries are moving to limit police use of the technology.

Regulations around the emerging technology remain nascent, but last October the OAIC ordered domestic 7-Eleven convenience stores to stop collecting “faceprints” at iPads that were used to carry out in-store surveys at 700 locations.

Facial profiles

Last year the regulator also ordered controversial US software developer Clearview AI, which collects images from social media websites to build profiles of individuals, to destroy data and stop the practice in Australia.

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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