Bunnings, Kmart and The Good Guys have been using facial recognition technology in a bid to crack down on theft in-store, research by Choice says.
The consumer group said it asked 25 of Australia’s largest retailers whether they were using facial recognition technology and examined their privacy policies.
Based on that investigation, it said, the three appeared to be the only retailers among that group who were using the technology.
Facial recognition technology captures images of people’s faces from video cameras – such as CCTV footage – as a unique faceprint that is then stored and can be compared with other faceprints.
According to Choice, Kmart and Bunnings have small signs on the stores where it is used. At Kmart it says “this store has 24-hour CCTV coverage, which includes facial recognition technology”. Both the Bunnings and Kmart privacy policies state the facial recognition technology is for “loss prevention or store safety purposes”.
“The use of facial recognition by Kmart, Bunnings and The Good Guys is a completely inappropriate and unnecessary use of the technology,” Choice consumer data advocate Kate Bower said.
“Discreet signage and online privacy policies are not nearly enough to adequately inform shoppers that this controversial technology is in use. The technology is capturing highly personal data from customers, including infants and children.”
A spokesperson for Bunnings said the technology was used in select stores “to help prevent theft and support the safety of our team and customers” and was in line with the Privacy Act.
“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 of team and customers,” he said.
Guardian Australia also sought comment from the other retailers named in the investigation.
Businesses are generally allowed to use CCTV to photograph customers on their premises, but Choice has raised concerns that privacy law has not kept pace with advances in facial recognition technology.
A Choice survey released as part of the research found 78% of those surveyed had concerns about how their biometric data was being stored, while 75% were concerned companies might use the data to create customer profiles for marketing purposes.
Choice says it has notified the OIAC (Office of the Australian Information Commissioner) of its findings and asked it to determine whether the use of the technology is consistent with the Privacy Act.
“Choice is concerned that Australian businesses are using facial recognition technology on consumers before Australians have had their say on its use in our community,” Bower said.
Convenience store giant 7-Eleven last year disabled a feature in more than 700 in-store review tablets that the OAIC found had taken facial images of millions of customers who used the tablets to complete surveys without their consent. The company argued at the time that the images were used only to ensure multiple surveys were not conducted by the same person in one day and that it had destroyed the images.
Kieran Pender, a senior lawyer with the Human Rights Law Centre , said the increasing use of facial technology raised human rights concerns.
“Such technologies should only be used alongside robust safeguards that ensure the use is necessary, proportionate and subject to appropriate oversight,” he said. “The new Albanese government should prioritise the implementation of regulations governing facial recognition technologies as part of the forthcoming overhaul of the electronic surveillance framework.”
A spokesperson for the OAIC said it would consider the findings.