Bunnings and Kmart Pause Use of Facial Recognition Tech Amid Privacy Commissioner Investigation

Bunnings and Kmart Pause Use of Facial Recognition Tech Amid Privacy Commissioner Investigation
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In mid-June, we reported that Kmart, Bunnings Warehouse and The Good Guys were all using facial recognition technology in-store after consumer advocacy group Choice revealed the companies were all recording customers’ faceprints, mostly without their knowledge.

At the time of Choice’s report, The Good Guys told Gizmodo Australia it was trialling a new CCTV system in two stores that can use face and feature recognition technology. About a month ago, however, The Good Guys shifted gears. It announced it was temporarily stopping the use of facial recognition technology.

Choice said this was “an important step in the right direction” for The Good Guys.

“Meanwhile, Bunnings and Kmart are lagging behind when it comes to any kind of commitment to stop the unethical and unnecessary use of facial recognition technology in their stores,” Choice senior campaigns and policy advisor Amy Pereira said at the time.

“We urge Kmart and Bunnings to reflect on the announcement made yesterday by The Good Guys, and ask them to end their use of facial recognition technology in store.”

Then, two weeks ago, Australia’s Privacy Commissioner announced it had opened an investigation into Kmart and Bunnings.

Kmart didn’t reply to Gizmodo Australia’s request for comment, but Bunnings said it only used the tech to help identify persons of interest who have previously been involved in incidents of concern in its stores. It told us at the time it was disappointed by Choice’s “inaccurate characterisation” of how it’s using facial recognition. It also told Electronic Frontiers Australia (EFA) that it was “comfortable” that its use of facial recognition is “undertaken in accordance with the requirements of the Privacy Act”.

The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) wasn’t so sure.

Specifically, the OAIC announced it had opened investigations into the personal information handling practices of Bunnings Group Limited and Kmart Australia Limited, focusing on the companies’ use of facial recognition technology.

While the OAIC said it has “no further comment”, the investigation follows guidance it gave shortly after Choice’s reporting went live. At the time, the OAIC made a statement declaring retailers must comply with privacy laws.

“It is important that all retail stores, when they are deciding whether to use technology to collect personal information, consider the impact on privacy, the community’s expectations and the need to comply with privacy law,” Australian Information Commissioner and Privacy Commissioner Angelene Falk said.

“The Privacy Act generally requires retailers to only collect sensitive biometric information if it’s reasonably necessary for their functions or activities, and where they have clear consent.

“While deterring theft and creating a safe environment are important goals, using high privacy impact technologies in stores carries significant privacy risks. Retailers need to be able to demonstrate that it is a proportionate response to collect the facial templates of all of their customers coming into their stores for this purpose.”

But on Monday, The Guardian was reporting that both Bunnings and Kmart have halted their use of the tech. Bunnings managing director Mike Schneider confirmed an AFR report with The Guardian that said the company had informed the OAIC it had stopped using the tech. A spokesperson for Kmart also confirmed it had paused its facial recognition tech use.

“When we have customers berate our team, pull weapons, spit, or throw punches – we ban them from our stores. But a ban isn’t effective if it’s hard to enforce,” Schneider is reported as saying. “Facial recognition gives us a chance to identify when a banned person enters a store so we can support our team to handle the situation before it escalates.”

Kmart, meanwhile, is quoted as pausing its use of facial recognition following the commencement of the OAIC investigation.

While an investigation is underway regarding Bunnings and Kmart, the OAIC said “preliminary inquiries” had commenced with The Good Guys. The OAIC at the time said its decision to not investigate The Good Guys alongside Bunnings and Kmart was due to reports that the retailer has paused its use of facial recognition technology. It’s unclear what Bunnings and Kmart’s shift means for the OAIC investigation.

This article has been updated since it was first published.