Last month it was revealed that Kmart and Bunnings, owned by Wesfarmers, and white goods retailer The Good Guys, quietly started using facial recognition in some stores without express permission from their customers.
While the Good Guys said it would pause a trial of the controversial technology, Bunnings and Kmart initially dug in their heels before this week, admitting facial recognition systems was disabled because the OAIC is conducting its investigation.
Kate Bower, a consumer data advocate at consumer group Choice, said Kmart and Bunnings’ decisions to end facial recognition were “a consumer victory.”
“We know this is what customers have been asking for,” Bower said.
“We have been overwhelmed by the response from consumers who said facial recognition is crossing the line.”
Of the 16,000 respondents to a recent Choice survey, 80% said they wanted Kmart and Bunnings to ditch facial recognition technology altogether.
Bower said the public response should “send a clear message to all retailers” that Australians do not want invasive surveillance technology as part of their shopping experience.
“Australians may be okay with surveillance cameras in stores and loyalty programs collecting data on their shopping behaviour, but it is clear that biometric surveillance is a step too far,” she said.
Bunnings and Kmart have continued to champion the use of facial recognition for “preventing criminal activity,” with a Kmart spokesperson saying the use of facial recognition was “appropriate” and “subject to strict controls.”
In an emailed statement, Bunnings CEO Mike Schneider reiterated that the hardware chain was only collecting biometric information about its customers to enforce bans.
“Facial recognition gives us the chance to identify when a banned person enters a store so we can support our team to address the situation before it escalates,” he said.
“To be clear, a person’s image will only be retained by the system if it is already enrolled in the database of individuals who have been banned or associated with crime in our stores.
“We don’t use it for marketing or tracking customer behavior, and we certainly don’t use it to identify regular customers who come into our stores.”
But Justin Warren, president of the digital rights advocacy group Electronic Frontiers Australia, maintains Schneider’s stance — that these kinds of surveillance systems are fine to use because they only store images of “the known evil” in a database — a fundamentally misrepresentation of the way the technology works.
“The system wants to know if the person it just took a picture of matches anyone in the database,” he said.
“The only way to do that is to scan people’s faces and do a facial print – otherwise, what are you comparing to the database?”
Faceprints, mathematical representations of faces that can be used as unique identifiers, are a form of biometric data classified as “sensitive information” under the privacy law.
Other forms of sensitive information include data about a person’s race, health, and political or religious affiliations.
Due to its nature, sensitive information is more closely monitored than non-sensitive information and must be collected in consultation, except in certain prescribed circumstances.
To continue using their facial recognition systems, Bunnings and Kmart will have to argue that the indiscriminate collection of biometric data without the informed consent of customers is necessary and proportionate for store security and enforcement of prohibitions.
Bower hopes the OAIC will make a “strong decision” against the retailers.
“There are less intrusive options for retail security, such as hiring more guards and using CCTV footage,” she said.
Warren said the community’s response should be enough reason for retailers to throw their facial recognition technology in the trash permanently, not just pause “when a regulator gets involved.”
“We can expect companies in Australia to act in line with community expectations to maintain their social license and continue to operate here,” he said.
“If companies disagree with that higher standard, they are free to leave this country.”
On Sunday, Choice released a statement endorsed by 17 major Australian retailers, including supermarket giants Coles and Woolworths, who simply reads: “We don’t use facial recognition in stores and we have no plans to introduce it”.