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Privacy Commissioner to ‘keep a close eye’ on Foodstuffs North Island FRT trial

Privacy Commissioner Michael Webster will use his inquiry powers to keep a close eye on the facial recognition technology (FRT) trial that Foodstuffs North Island is starting on Thursday 8 February.

The use of biometric technologies (which FRT is) is something he thinks all New Zealanders should care about because it’s a significant step in this technology becoming more commonplace and it has privacy implications.

The trial is happening because the Privacy Commissioner asked Foodstuffs North Island to provide evidence that FRT was a justified way to reduce retail crime given the privacy impacts of using shoppers’ biometric information. Foodstuffs North Island will use the data from the trial, which is across 25 stores, to decide whether to roll-out the technology further.

The Commissioner’s concern is that FRT isn’t a proven tool in efforts to reduce harmful behaviour in supermarkets, especially violent harmful behaviour.

“New Zealanders deserve to shop for their milk and bread without having their faces scanned unless it’s really justified,” says Michael Webster.

“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 to, now and in the future.

“We want people to be safe as they shop and work. But I have real questions about whether the technology will be effective in stopping violent behaviour or preventing harm.

“It’s also not an FRT-or-nothing situation. There are other options in place to deal with retail crime and therefore Foodstuffs North Island needs to find hard data that it works and is necessary.”

Concerns around accuracy and biasThe Commissioner is also particularly concerned about bias and accuracy. Global evaluations of even the most accurate FRT software show that false matches are more likely to happen for people of colour, particularly women of colour.

“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 says.

Commissioner needs to see evidenceFoodstuffs North Island has engaged with the Office of the Privacy Commissioner over an extended period. However, that doesn’t mean the Office has endorsed its use of FRT.

Michael Webster says, “I will be looking for evidence after the six-month trial that the use of FRT has made a practical and statistically significant difference to the incidence of retail crime in Foodstuff North Island supermarkets relative to other less privacy intrusive options.

“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.

“Protecting privacy is key to ensuring human dignity, safety, and self-determination. It is a key part of what makes us a free and democratic society. New technologies have the promise of huge benefits. My job is to ensure that we don’t accidentally give up our privacy rights along the way,” says Michael Webster.

As the Foodstuffs North Island trial and the Commissioner’s inquiry (which will run concurrently) progresses, he will consider if any further action is necessary to protect New Zealanders’ privacy.

Individuals or groups who are inadvertently affected by the trial can raise their privacy concerns with the Office of the Privacy Commissioner.

More about the trial

Based on OPC’s feedback, Foodstuffs North Island have made a significant number of changes to the trial that aim to mitigate both privacy risk and give better insights into customer impacts and perspectives.

“Foodstuffs North Island is to be applauded for their willingness to make these privacy enhancing changes,” says Michael Webster.

“However, the trial itself is not without risk given the effectiveness of the technology and the operational protocols are untested in a supermarket setting. The franchised nature of the Foodstuffs North Island operation also means that individual owner operated stores who participate in the trial are responsible for decisions about what they do and how they use the data they collect. This is another reason for keeping a close eye.

“Every New Zealander has the right to privacy, and 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,” says Michael.


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