Privacy Commissioner to keep a close eye on Foodstuffs North Island facial recognition trial

New Zealand Security Magazine - Update

Foodstuffs NI facial rec trial to undergo greater scrutiny. Image: Joshua Rawson-Harris / Unsplash.

Privacy Commissioner Michael Webster will be keeping a close eye on a facial recognition technology trial recently commenced by Foodstuffs North Island. Other retailers are also watching.

The trial, which commenced on 08 February, was initiated after the Privacy Commissioner asked Foodstuffs North Island to provide evidence that FRT was a justified initiative for reducing retail crime given its privacy impacts. Foodstuffs North Island will use the data from the 25-store trial to determine whether to roll-out the technology further.

According to a media release by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner (OPC), “the use of biometric technologies (which FRT is) is something he thinks all New Zealanders should care about because it’s a significant step in this technology becoming more commonplace and it has privacy implications.”

The Commissioner has raised the concern that “FRT isn’t a proven tool in efforts to reduce harmful behaviour in supermarkets, especially violent harmful behaviour.”

“New Zealanders deserve to shop for their milk and bread without having their faces scanned unless it’s really justified,” said Webster. “We wouldn’t accept being fingerprinted and checked at the door before shopping for groceries – that sounds ludicrous – but FRT is a similar biometric process that is faster, machine-run, happens in a nanosecond, and creates a template to compare your face to, now and in the future.”

“The franchised nature of the Foodstuffs North Island operation also means that individual owner operated stores who participate in the trial are responsible for decisions about what they do and how they use the data they collect. This is another reason for keeping a close eye.”

“We want people to be safe as they shop and work. But I have real questions about whether the technology will be effective in stopping violent behaviour or preventing harm. It’s also not an FRT-or-nothing situation”, he stated. “There are other options in place to deal with retail crime and therefore Foodstuffs North Island needs to find hard data that it works and is necessary.”

According to the OPC, Global evaluations of even the most accurate FRT software show that false matches are more likely to happen for people of colour, particularly women of colour.

“I am particularly worried about what this means for Māori, Pasifika, Indian, and Asian shoppers especially as the software is not trained on New Zealand’s population,” said the Commissioner. “I don’t want to see people incorrectly banned from their local supermarket and falsely accused.”

The OPC has clarified that although Foodstuffs North Island has engaged with them over an extended period, it “doesn’t mean the Office has endorsed its use of FRT.”

“I will be looking for evidence after the six-month trial that the use of FRT has made a practical and statistically significant difference to the incidence of retail crime in Foodstuff North Island supermarkets relative to other less privacy intrusive options,” said the Commissioner.

“It’s my job to protect New Zealanders’ privacy and we need to make sure, in instances like this FRT trial, that New Zealanders can trust that where their personal information is being used is necessary to the job at hand, and that the privacy risks associated with it are managed.

“Protecting privacy is key to ensuring human dignity, safety, and self-determination. It is a key part of what makes us a free and democratic society. New technologies have the promise of huge benefits. My job is to ensure that we don’t accidentally give up our privacy rights along the way,” he said

Individuals or groups who are inadvertently affected by the trial are encouraged to raise their privacy concerns with the Office of the Privacy Commissioner.

Foodstuffs North Island has already made a significant number of changes to the trial relating to privacy risk and gaining insights on customer impacts. The Commissioner has applauded Foodstuffs North Island for its willingness to make these changes.

“However, the trial itself is not without risk given the effectiveness of the technology and the operational protocols are untested in a supermarket setting,” he said. “The franchised nature of the Foodstuffs North Island operation also means that individual owner operated stores who participate in the trial are responsible for decisions about what they do and how they use the data they collect. This is another reason for keeping a close eye.”

Retailers also watching

The facial recognition will be closely watched by retailers across Aotearoa New Zealand, according to retailers’ association Retail NZ.

“Retail NZ members are facing increasing rates of crime, putting both their employees and the public at risk, as well as threatening the financial sustainability of retail businesses,” Retail NZ Chief Executive Carolyn Young said. “The outcomes of this innovative trial will be of enormous interest to retailers across the motu.”

According to a Retail NZ statement, retail crime is a significant issue in New Zealand, impacting more than 92% of retailers. Retail NZ released a Crime Report in October 2023 that found the cost of retail crime to its members was well over $2.6 billion.

More and more, retailers are dealing with threatening, violent or simply unpleasant customers, who are trying to steal or damage their property, said Ms Young. Organised crime groups stealing to order, drug addicts and youths looking for notoriety on social media are driving the spike in retail crime, she continued.

Retail NZ confirmed that it supports the introduction of new technologies to proactively combat retail crime and that it is pleased Foodstuffs North Island is taking a lead.

Retail NZ is also calling on the Government to adequately resource Police to deal with retail crime, and to unclog the court system so that offenders are dealt with promptly.

“Ultimately, retail crime results in higher costs and more security barriers for all customers and consumers. We look forward to learning from this trial to see if the technology is suitable to be rolled out across other retailers,” Ms Young said.