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Kmart and Bunnings pause using facial recognition after OAIC investigation: Report

The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) began probing after Bunnings, Kmart were reported to use facial recognition tech in stores

What’s the news: Kmart, a department store chain and Bunnings, a household hardware chain, halted the use of facial recognition technology (FRT) in their stores following investigations by Australia’s privacy regulator, reported The Guardian.

Choice, a consumer group, revealed how the companies used FRT under claims of protecting customers, staff and reducing theft in select stores, said the report. The technology captures images of people’s faces from video cameras as a unique faceprint that is stored and can be compared with other faceprints. On learning about Choice’s finding, the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) started an investigation over the companies’ FRT use and its consistency with privacy laws.

Why this matters: The use of FRT works into privacy concerns. According to Indian Express, Australians have been demanding laws to regulate this technology even before Choice’s report. Some critics even warned that FRT poses a threat of racial discrimination or bias. This is important considering the two companies currently under fire said that they used FRT for security reasons. Moreover, India too is slowly embracing this technology. However, unlike Australia, India does not have a national data protection law in place.

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Companies stop using facial recognition: According to The Guardian, the hardware chain informed the OAIC that it had stopped using the technology. However, the official speaking to the newspaper accused Choice of “mischaracterising” the issue. Bunnings said it only used FRT to detect a person banned from the store.

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Regular customers did not have their images retained in the system, said the spokesperson. However, every customer entering the store had their face scanned and checked against the database of banned customers. The technology was already temporarily switched off in Bunnings stores as the company moved to a new system, said The Guardian.

Similarly, a Kmart spokesperson also confirmed that the company had temporarily stopped using FRT. The department chain said it felt using the technology to “prevent criminal activity such as refund fraud” is appropriate and subject to strict controls.

Choice demands permanent action: Meanwhile, Choice called for the permanent halting of FRT usage. Speaking to The Guardian, the consumer group’s legal representative said the decision on whether the companies breached Australia’s Privacy Act by using the technology will be a landmark decision.

Like Kmart and Bunnings, The Good Guys, a consumer electronics store chain, earlier faced preliminary inquiries from OAIC for FRT usage and paused its usage soon after, said The Guardian.

As per the report, 17 retail chains told Choice that they don’t use facial recognition in their stores and that they have no plans to introduce it. These retailers include Woolworths, Coles, Aldi, Target, Big W, Myer, David Jones, Dan Murphy’s, BWS, Vintage Cellars, Liquorland, Rebel and Officeworks.

This story was updated with hyperlinks for further clarity of information at 6 PM on July 27.

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This post is released under a CC-BY-SA 4.0 license. Please feel free to republish on your site, with attribution and a link. Adaptation and rewriting, though allowed, should be true to the original.

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I'm interested in the shaping and strengthening of rights in the digital space. I cover cybersecurity, platform regulation, gig worker economy. In my free time, I'm either binge-watching an anime or off on a hike.

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