Southern Co-op is using facial recognition

Here’s a story that might interest some regarding facial recognition tech.

I work in the retail trade and as anyone who works in retail will tell you, shoplifters are absolute scum. Their theiving actions merely push prices up for everyone else because the shop keeper still has to pay for the items they steal. For the most part, stealing from shops isn’t done out of some sort of ‘necessity’, it’s done through choice, a deliberate act to deprive hard working business owners.

The article suggests that some folks will be deterred from entering stores if they know they are being captured on facial recognition tech. Well in that case, the people who are so worried about their civil liberties should perhaps just stay at home for their entire lives then, because each and every time they walk out into the shopping centre, every airport, bank, petrol station, bingo hall, pub, the list quite literally goes on and on and on, they’ll be captured anyway. People need to remember, per head of population, I believe the UK is the most surveilled nation on the planet.

Broadly speaking I would agree with your opinions on shoplifters and on surveillance. The limits of how they say they are using this wouldn’t concern me. I think if at some point in the future that data was then being shared with other local retailers (for perfectly understandable reasons) then I would question if this would be legal and how far we would allow this process to go.

I feel guilty if my bank card is declined even when I’ve done nothing wrong, let alone being mistakenly identified as a thief because of some problem with a system somewhere :slight_smile:

And believe me, I know exactly how that feels. A few years back before e passport gates, I once stepped off a long haul flight and got to the immigration desk to find myself surrounded by several immigration officers who believed I was someone else. I was quite fortunate on that occasion, they stepped down rather quickly once I produced a particular form of ID that conclusively proved exactly who I was, as seemingly my passport wasn’t enough to quell their interest. Lot’s of ‘Sorry Sir’ as I continued on my way. No hard feelings, but you’re right, things can go wrong from time to time.

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This feels like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, and almost a reversal of innocent-until-proven-guilty.

Everybody entering the shop is subject to facial recognition, which is much more invasive than ordinary CCTV, and their image is “captured” for the record just in case they later turn out to be a shoplifter (which, obviously, the majority won’t be).

And I agree with @dave.b that I get worried about my card being declined even when it shouldn’t be - so the thought that this could somehow go wrong, or even that my image is floating about in the retailer’s system, would put me off shopping there.

I live in the countryside so out of your list of “commonly surveilled places” I only go to garages and airports with any regularity, and I really do feel quite uncomfortable already about e-gates. It’s not a step in the right direction, in my view - and normally I am in favour of new technology.

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I absolutely get where you’re coming from, not everyone is entirely comfortable. Personally, I’m in the ‘I don’t give a crap’ camp. Indeed, I’m actually quite comfortable being caught on CCTV multiple times a day. If someone accuses me of something, or being somewhere they say I was when I know I damn well wasn’t, I can at least turn around and say that I was in such and such a place at that particular time, so go and ask for the CCTV and check it out for yourself.

As for airports, it never ceases to amuse me about the attitudes of some people who consistently cry about their civil rights and privacy. I know someone who constantly bangs on about the whole CCTV thing, doesn’t agree with facial recognition, has a thing about fingerprints etc. And then (pr-Covid of course), he goes to the USA on holiday and guess what happens? Retinal scan and fingerprints/photo taken on arrival at whichever airport he lands into. Doesn’t stop him from going and of course he can’t kick off about it when he’s going through immigration, or they’d just chuck him back on the plane and tell him to bugger off.

Yes, I don’t make a big thing about it and, as you say, you don’t really get a choice - but I am more comfortable with the good old “face to face passport control” than the e-gates, especially because I’ve been “trapped” in them in the past when I couldn’t get the scan to match well enough (must have looked a bit off that day!).

Flying in general is difficult nowadays, so it’s just another thing you have to contend with.

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This is a highly disconcerting development if indeed as portrayed in the article. The use of this tech in public spaces should either be outright banned or very, very heavily regulated and limited to only a few strategic agencies/actors. This is nothing like CCTV. Here are just a few questions that we should be thinking carefully about:

How is the data stored? If not encrypted at rest, then any hacker can get at it. Your face cannot be changed like a password or code. If this becomes common usage, supermarkets, hardly at the forefront of tech security and defence, would become easy targets for criminals to get at data. Please remember that just last week, the US nuclear weapons agency was hacked. Never mind poxy old Co-op.

How is the data transported and used, if at all? If not end-to-end encrypted, then we are screwed like the above.

What is the process of informed consent? As usage of social media sites has shown, merely using a service is not informed consent. And merely using a service does not automatically make it ethical or safe for a company to gather all sorts of irrelevant data.

What are the procedures for an individual to have their data erased from the system? Even Google or Facebook have to allow you that right under GDPR - I bloody hope a supermarket would be forced to as well.

What legal limits are there or should there be on a supermarket to distribute the data or use it for other purposes e.g. being tracked across different shops in the neighbourhood for advertisement purposes? It is none of Co-op’s business where else I go or what I do outside of their shops, so in this horrid new world they’re proposing, what mechanisms are available to me to ensure they never know?

Is this the most efficient and effective way to deal with shoplifters? And even if yes, do we care enough about some supermarket’s profits to compromise our liberty like this? There has been zero public discussion about whether there are less invasive means of dealing with this same problem or whether this is a problem worth sacrificing our rights for. So this seems like a significant overreach.

What does it mean for the rights of the individual to have their face stored for being ‘suspected’? There should be some powers to protect your private property, but we need to decide as a society what the limits of those powers should be. Someone doesn’t lose all their rights just because they’re in my house. So let’s discuss whether a supermarket should be able to breach someone’s privacy rights just because that person is buying milk in a privately owned building.

Do we want a society where the expansion of tech is primarily to serve corporations rather than us citizens or is perhaps even at the expense of us citizens? Let’s have a thorough public debate about this question before we get comfortable with corporations, never mind supermarkets, mass-gathering our data like that. Let’s not just allow this to happen without us exploring together the key implications for ourselves and our society.

We all need to become a lot more educated about what this all means. I recommend not just tuning out or looking for the nearest seeming analogy (e.g. CCTV), but instead asking some probing questions to determine if you think such developments will make society your life, your community, and your future better or worse. A podcast like this one is a good place to start: Or if you prefer reading, try “Weapons of Math Destruction” by Cathy O’Neil:


Oh, go on - tell us. :thinking:

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Banned, no, but regulated - yes.

Thanks for the podcast link. Without delving too deep here, I noticed that the chap opens his contribution by acknowledging the accuracy of said technology. That’s important.

I’d be rather more resistant if a growing method of face recognition was demonstrably poor at recognition.

For me the presence of accurate surveillance is potentially a force for good - providing that sufficient safeguards exist.

The ability to identify me in a shop or within a demonstrating crowd doesn’t offend me. It reminds me that the ability to capture evidence of crime has been enhanced - it was always going to be thus.

The debate should be about safeguards around the use of the images - not about the use of the technology per se.

So long as the equipment is not in use where I might reasonably expect to be private - than that’s ok.

I’ll rely on the rest of the criminal justice system to protect me from misuse or misinterpretation. British justice, and all that…:blush:


Nahh, sorry, still bound by the OSA. If I told you, I’d have to kill myself and why do that when Covid still has time to finish me off before our Government manages to roll out the vaccine :rofl


I have to admit, from a purely personal perspective, I’m just not bothered. The Government and other agencies know so much about me, I got past caring long ago. That with my biometric data stored on other mainframes in different parts of the world, it just doesn’t concern me at all. I stress this is my personal view. If I walk into a shop, it’s a purely voluntary act, no one forces me to walk in and for the most part, I’m fully aware my data/images are being captured and stored somewhere. It’s part of life in the 21st century and as I’ve probably/hopefully/maybe only got another 30/40 years left to live, it’s just not something I fancy losing sleep over if I’m honest.

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This is fair enough, and I respect that you have your personal view. It might be that we have different expectations of what the next 30-40 years will look like. I worry sometimes that if we don’t become more informed citizens now, we will live those 30-40 years in regret because a bad/intolerant government is precisely tracking all our movements, large tech companies are manipulating our fellow citizens into voting one way or another, and profit-seeking supermarkets know more about us than our mothers. I’m motivated to forestall the worst case scenario in 30-40 years by discussing these issues today with people around me. But I understand that this may not be a priority concern for everyone as, God knows, there’s a lot going on right now.


I tend to agree with you. I work in an industry where I am faced with these questions from customers almost every day.

However, it’s a highly complex and specialised area and beyond most people’s ability to spend the necessary amount of time to become accustomed to the full body of knowledge required to make informed decisions.

It’s already the case that supermarkets can use anonymised data to target groups of people so as to affect their purchasing preferences. This could be putting people at a financial disadvantage without them even knowing this is the case. What I’ve just described can also be done even if you pay with cash!

This is in contrast to the sort of data gained from personal information that is explicitly linked to us as an individual such as in the case of facial recognition.

From my own experience people misunderstand what we mean when we talk about privacy and assume it is all one thing. That’s not the case. These two types of data need to be treated differently because one is more likely to impact you without you knowing about it than the other.

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