Questioning facial recognition technology

It is good to hear the privacy commissioner will be keeping a close eye on the trial of facial recognition technology (FRT) at some North Island stores in the Foodstuffs stable.

The plan is that 25 New World and Pak’nSave stores will test the technology for up to six months. (This trial has been in the pipeline since November 2022. At that time it was revealed some North Island stores were already using FRT technology. We understand they turned it off while the trial was being planned.) When someone enters the store, their image will be taken by the FRT system, their facial features analysed and converted to an alphanumeric computer code and instantly compared against the store’s record of previous offenders and accomplices.

The FRT system must detect a 90% facial match. If one is found with someone in the store’s record of offenders and accomplices within the FRT system, two specially trained team members will then need to agree it is a match before the shopper is approached.

The supermarket giant is selling the use of FRT as part of its commitment to keeping its customers and staff safe. It is concerned about the increase in retail crime in its stores, including incidents in which staff have been stabbed, punched, kicked, bitten and spat at. Repeat offenders account for about a third of incidents. No reasonable person would want retail workers to be unsafe, but we wonder how successful this technology will be at deterring new offenders.

Privacy commissioner Michael Webster has asked Foodstuffs North Island to provide evidence FRT is a justified way to reduce retail crime given the privacy impacts of using shoppers’ biometric information.

His concern is that it is not a proven tool to reduce harmful behaviour in supermarkets, especially violent harmful behaviour. Then there is the issue of the accuracy of the system. Overseas evaluations of FRT show false matches are more likely to happen to people of colour, particularly women.

While the old "if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear" argument might be many people’s initial reaction to this FRT use, how would any of us feel if we were wrongly identified?

The collecting of biometric information in this way has been compared with being subjected to a police lineup or being finger-printed every time you enter a store, something none of us would find reasonable.

Mr Webster will be consulting the public on the use of biometric technology this year with the aim of developing new rules for it. The focus will be on requiring organisations to assess whether reasons for its use outweigh the privacy intrusion or risks, transparency, and limitations on collecting and using the information. Such rules cannot come too soon.

PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

And another thing

Some wag suggested to RNZ’s Checkpoint programme Countdown Dunedin South might want to introduce a different sort of FRT, faecal recognition technology. They were referring to news on Friday the store would be closing for at least 48 hours to sort out the ongoing rat problem there.

This move should have happened weeks ago, but instead Woolworths New Zealand decided to tough it out even though it was losing regular customers apparently not convinced by the organisation’s soothing noises about the eradication programme.

We have been critical of the Woolworths’ public relations machine and its reluctance to answer many of our legitimate questions posed over the rat infestation. We are not sure how Woolworths could have been so positive everything was hunky-dory on Monday, contrary to what we heard from staff, and when a few days later it reported four rats were caught. Has head office been paying enough attention to what its staff are telling it?

We hope the closure will bring about an end to this saga which has gone on for far too long.

Questions remain about whether external oversight of the store’s pest control measures months ago was sufficient, and if not, why not?