Facial Recognition Update: Response from Foodstuffs

Yesterday I received a response from Foodstuffs to my earlier email expressing concerns over their facial recognition trial. The full response is as follows:

From: privacy@foodstuffs.co.nz

Hi Rob,

Thank you for getting in touch, sharing your concerns regarding our trial of facial recognition (FR) in up to 25 of our North Island stores. I understand your apprehensions about this technology and its potential implications. I’d like to address your points and provide clarity on why we are exploring this approach.

The decision to trial FR is solely motivated by a large increase in retail crime rates, which are having a profound impact on our ability to maintain a safe and secure shopping environment for our customers and team members. Just the other week we reported 5,124 incidents of retail crime across our stores in the first quarter of 2024, including 60 assaults, double the previous quarter. The sad reality is that supermarket workers are being stabbed, punched, kicked, bitten and spat at on a regular basis.  

We know repeat offenders are responsible for around one third of all incidents and we think FR has the potential to help identify repeat offenders when they try to come back into our stores.  

It’s important to emphasise that while the FR system generates an alert when it detects a match against the stores list of offenders and accomplices, a human decision-making process is integral to the process.  Our approach involves two specially trained team members reviewing all alerts generated by the FR system before deciding on the appropriate course of action. This ensures a human will always have the final say.

Regarding your concerns about the potential for discrimination or bias, we share your commitment to ensuring fairness and equity. We acknowledge there have been challenges in the past with FR, which is why we’re closely monitoring the performance of the technology within our trial stores and are committed to addressing any issues that may arise.  

Preparing for the trial we’ve been very thorough in ensuring we respect the privacy of our customers. We’ve appointed a specialist, independent organisation to design and review the trial, they will also evaluate the results. We’ve also engaged with the Office of the Privacy Commissioner to ensure they’re well briefed and aware of what we’re doing and why.

Regarding your reference to Auror and its potential use of FR, I cannot comment on the specifics of another company’s technology. However, I assure you our decision to trial FR is based on our specific operational needs and the challenges we face in maintaining a secure shopping environment.

We appreciate your feedback and your engagement on this important matter. We take your concerns seriously and will continue to assess the implications of this technology thoroughly.

Thank you again for taking the time to share your perspective. We remain committed to transparency and accountability in our approach.

If you haven’t already, I’d recommend having a look at our facial recognition webpage. There’s a video that shows how the system works, a fact sheet and a copy of our privacy impact assessment report. The webpage is here: https://www.foodstuffs.co.nz/news-room/Facial-Recognition-Trial  

Kind regards,

Foodstuffs Legal Team

I haven’t yet responded to this as I need more time to formulate my thoughts. For now here are some of my initial thoughts:

  • I sympathise with those affected by the increase in retail crime, although there are other ways to deal with the problem rather than technological band-aid solutions. The supermarkets are also not entirely blameless in creating the conditions that have led to rising crime.
  • The use of human supervisors in AI systems does not alleviate any of the issues inherent with their use due to “automation blindness”. Basically, humans are not good at seeing events that happen infrequently.
  • There has already been a documented case of this system mis-identifying someone and them being removed from the store.
  • The privacy commission has already launched an investigation. When Foodstuffs claim to be “working with” the commission, how much of this is them just doing what they are legally obligated to do?

I’ll formulate these thoughts and others into a more cogent argument in the coming weeks and send a response, which I will also publish here (as well as any further communication from Foodstuffs).

One response to “Facial Recognition Update: Response from Foodstuffs”

  1. Martin Connolly Avatar
    Martin Connolly

    Their response is typical corporate response. You will probably not get a response to any reply you send, as they have already ‘fulfilled’ their obligation to reply to your concerns.

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