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Choice lodges OAIC complaint over ‘intrusive’ facial recognition technology

Note: Conceptual image for illustrative purposes only. (Source: Bigstock.)

Three of Australia’s largest retail chains are the subject of a complaint lodged with the nation’s privacy regulator by consumer advocacy organisation Choice, which alleges the companies are using “unreasonably intrusive” facial recognition technology on customers.

Just two weeks ago, Choice detailed the practice in which JB Hi-Fi’s appliances chain The Good Guys along with hardware chain Bunnings, and the Australian arm of big-box retailer Kmart – both owned by Wesfarmers – are photographing and storing facial impressions of customers entering stores.

Now Choice has lodged a complaint with the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) describing the technology’s use as unwarranted.

The OAIC said it was reviewing the complaint.

On Tuesday, JB Hi-Fi said it was suspending its use of facial-recognition technology in wake of Choice’s complaint.

“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,” a spokesperson for JB Hi-Fi said in an email to Reuters.

Retailers cited in the earlier revelation by Choice have defended the images’ capture and storage as justified on security grounds.

“In recent years, we’ve seen an increase in the number of challenging interactions our team have had to handle in our stores and this technology is an important tool in helping us to prevent repeat abuse and threatening behaviour towards our team and customers,” Bunnings’ COO Simon McDowell told Inside Retail in an emailed response when Choice first expressed its concerns.

Reuters reports that an OAIC investigation would be Australia’s biggest into facial-recognition technology as consumer groups worldwide warn of incursions on privacy and potential for racial profiling. The retailers in the Choice complaint operate about 800 stores and booked $25 billion in sales last year.

Choice policy adviser Amy Pereira said facial recognition technology 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”.

“Choice urges you as commissioner to investigate this matter further and consider taking enforcement action against Kmart, Bunnings and The Good Guys for failure to meet their obligations under the (Privacy) Act,” Pereira said in the complaint.

Last year. Choice was instrumental in 7-Eleven Australia destroying “faceprints” collected at 700 convenience stores on iPads set up to run customer surveys. It also saw US software developer Clearview AI, which collects images from social media websites to build profiles of individuals, destroy data and stop the practice in Australia.

Choice said the three retailers in its complaint collected personal and sensitive information without consent and without clearly disclosing the practice in a policy.

While there are signs near the doors of stores alerting shoppers to the technology, few consumers would be likely to see or read them. Choice said “customers’ silence cannot be taken as consent” and many had no alternative place to make their purchases.

  • Additional reporting by Byron Kaye, of Reuters.

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