Bunnings and Kmart are now facing an official investigation into potential breaches of privacy laws, after it was revealed they were collecting customers ‘faceprints’ in some stores. The two companies faced some scrutiny earlier this year when news broke of their use of facial recognition technologies.
The office of the Australian Information Commissioner has now launched an investigation to determine the legality of their actions. Consumer advocacy group Choice recommended a review, following a survey they conducted earlier this year.
Choice previously looked into 25 top Australian retailers, and concluded that Bunnings, Kmart, and the Good Guys were “capturing the biometric data of their customers”. Between March and April this year, they then surveyed over 1,000 people on their opinions. More than 75% of respondents had no idea facial recognition tech was being used, and 65% said they were concerned about stores using the technology to create profiles of potentially harmful customers.
The latter is the reasoning given by Bunnings and Kmart for their implementation of facial recognition. Speaking to Choice, Bunnings CFO Simon McDowell said “This technology is an important measure that helps us to maintain a safe and secure environment for our team and customers.”
Bunnings maintains the only images retained in the facial recognition database are of people banned from stores, or suspected of threatening conduct. A Kmart spokesperson similarly claimed, “Our trial of the use of this technology in some stores was for limited purposes including loss prevention and we have strict controls around its use.”
But not everyone is convinced. Choice consumer data advocate, Kate Bower, says the companies’ use of facial recognition is “completely inappropriate and unnecessary.” She believes the practice “is similar to…collecting your fingerprints or DNA every time you shop.”
Australia already has a controversial history with facial recognition software. Last year, plans were made – and some carried out – to use the software in COVID isolation checks. Almost every state piloted a home-isolation app that used facial recognition and GPS tracking to check whether users were completing their quarantine periods. Australia was the only democracy in the world to use such measures.
The Australian Human Rights Commission has asked for a moratorium on the technology until laws are passed to regulate its use. To stand up to scrutiny, such legislation would have to be rigorous.
“The pandemic created all these new justifications for using facial recognition technology,” says Professor Mark Andrejevic, of Monash University, “Everything went online and organisations were trying to make things work very quickly. But the implications haven’t been thought through. Do we want to live in a world where everything is rendered and there are no private spaces?”
Kmart and Bunnings are cooperating with the investigation.
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