Kmart, Bunnings and the Good Guys Have Been Using Facial Recognition in Stores All Along (If You Read the Fine Print)

Kmart, Bunnings and the Good Guys Have Been Using Facial Recognition in Stores All Along (If You Read the Fine Print)
Image: Zachariah Kelly/Gizmodo Australia

A report from consumer advocacy group Choice has revealed that Kmart, Bunnings Warehouse and The Good Guys are using facial recognition technology in-store.

Facial recognition has been a problematic but ever-growing privacy concern. While the same technology behind facial recognition (biometrics) powers stuff like Memojis and even security services like phone locking, there has been growing concern that businesses and government bodies could use facial recognition to collect data on individuals. Two years ago, a leaked document revealed that the Australian Federal Police use Clearview AI facial recognition. More recently, Clearview AI was fined for illegally collecting images of British faces.

But this new report from Choice indicates how the technology is heading into the retail space.

Choice asked 25 Australian retailers about their use of facial recognition technology (their privacy policies were also analysed) and found that Kmart, Bunnings Warehouse and The Good Guys were the only major retailers using the tech.

“Most of these privacy policies you have to search for online, and they’re often not easy to find,” said Kate Bower, a Choice consumer data advocate.

“But because we’re talking about in-person retail shops, it’s likely that no one is reading a privacy policy before they go into a store.”

Choice further noted that the collection of biometric data in the ways that these stores are potentially using it could be in breach of the Privacy Act, saying that while Kmart and Bunnings Warehouse stores had notices at the fronts of stores indicating the use of the technology, they were small, inconspicuous and easily missed.

“We believe that these retail businesses are disproportionate in their over collection of this information, which means that they may be in breach of the Privacy Act,” Bower added.

Bunnings Warehouse has responded to Choice.

“At selected stores our CCTV systems utilise facial recognition technology, which is used to help identify persons of interest who have previously been involved in incidents of concern in our stores,” Simon McDowell, Bunnings’ chief operating officer, said.

“This technology is an important measure that helps us to maintain a safe and secure environment for our team and customers.

“It’s really important to us that we do everything we can to discourage poor behaviour in our stores, and we believe this technology is an important measure that helps us to maintain a safe and secure environment for our team and customers.”

Additionally, Bunnings responded to Gizmodo Australia’s request for comment:

“We are disappointed by CHOICE’s inaccurate characterisation of Bunnings’ use of facial recognition technology in selected stores. This technology is used solely to keep team and customers safe and prevent unlawful activity in our stores, which is consistent with the Privacy Act,” added McDowell.

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.

There are strict controls around the use of the technology which can only be accessed by specially trained team. This technology is not used for marketing, consumer behaviour tracking, and images of children are never enrolled.

We let customers know if the technology is in use through signage at our store entrances and also in our privacy policy, which is available via the homepage of our website.”

The Good Guys responded to Gizmodo Australia’s request for comment as well:

“The Good Guys is trialling in two stores the use of a new CCTV system that can use face and feature recognition technology. This technology is used solely for the purposes of loss prevention and the safety of our store team members and customers. We let our customers know the technology is in use in these two stores through our store entrance signage, and in our privacy policy that is available on our website.”

Gizmodo Australia has also reached out to Kmart for comment but they are yet to respond.

Monash University’s Professor Mark Adrejevic noted that when it comes to facial recognition “we don’t have a clear set of regulations or guidelines on the appropriate use of the technology”.

“Even if that technology was perfectly accurate, and it’s not, but even if it were, it also takes us into the realm of mass surveillance,” added Professor Edward Santow from the University of Technology Sydney. He’s a former Australian Human Rights Comissioner and has led work on artificial intelligence.

“And I think there will be great concern in the Australian community about walking down that path.”

The Attorney-General is currently reviewing the Privacy Act of 1988 as a part of the government’s response to the ACCC’s digital platforms inquiry.

You can read the Choice report here.

This article has been updated since it was originally published.