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Privacy Commissioner scrutinises Foodstuffs' facial recognition trial
Mon, 12th Feb 2024

Privacy Commissioner Michael Webster announced that he will utilise his inquiry powers to scrutinise Foodstuffs North Island's trial of facial recognition technology (FRT) starting on February 8th. Commenting on the technology, he voiced concerns about its privacy implications, as well as the accuracy and potential for bias, especially among New Zealand's diverse populations.

The FRT trial is being initiated following a request from the Privacy Commissioner's Office for Foodstuffs North Island to provide evidence justifying the use of FRT as a means to reduce retail crime while also considering the consequences to privacy. Foodstuffs North Island will run the trial across 25 stores, employing the data gathered to decide whether to widely adopt the technology.

Mr Webster expressed reservations about the effectiveness of FRT, especially in curbing aggressive behaviour in supermarkets. "New Zealanders deserve to shop for their milk and bread without having their faces scanned unless it’s really justified," he stated. "We wouldn’t accept being fingerprinted and checked at the door before shopping for groceries - that sounds ludicrous - but FRT is a similar biometric process that is faster, machine-run happens in a nanosecond, and creates a template to compare your face too, now and in the future."

The Privacy Commissioner also mentioned the existence of other methods to manage retail crime, asserting that it is essential for Foodstuffs North Island to find solid evidence justifying the use and necessity of FRT. Mr Webster also voiced concerns about the possibility of inaccuracies and bias in the technology. He referenced global studies that have shown a higher likelihood of false matches for people of colour, especially women, with the available software.

"I am particularly worried about what this means for Māori, Pasifika, Indian, and Asian shoppers especially as the software is not trained on New Zealand’s population," says the Privacy Commissioner. "I don’t want to see people incorrectly banned from their local supermarket and falsely accused," he cautioned.

Although Foodstuffs North Island has been in contact with the Office of the Privacy Commissioner for an extended period, this does not imply endorsement of their use of FRT. "It’s my job to protect New Zealanders’ privacy and we need to make sure, in instances like this FRT trial, that New Zealanders can trust that where their personal information is being used is necessary to the job at hand, and that the privacy risks associated with it are managed," stated Webster.

Finally, he praised Foodstuffs North Island for modifying the trial to reduce both privacy risk and to enhance understanding of customer impact and perspectives. Nonetheless, Mr Webster maintains that the trial is risky. "Every New Zealander has the right to privacy. I'd like them to get interested in what's happening with their personal, sensitive data, when they’re picking up their bread and milk after the school run," concludes Michael.