February 7, 2023

The Southern Co-Op chain faces a legal challenge over the ‘Orwellian’ and ‘illegitimate’ use of facial recognition cameras.

Privacy rights group Big Brother Watch claimed supermarket staff could put people on a secret “blacklist” without their knowledge.

But Southern says it uses the Facewatch system in stores with a history of crime so it can protect its staff.

Big Brother Watch said the independent supermarket chain had installed the surveillance technology in 35 stores in Portsmouth, Bournemouth, Bristol, Brighton and Hove, Chichester, Southampton and London.

It claimed that staff could add individuals to a watchlist where their biometric information is kept for up to two years.

Earlier this year, the Mail on Sunday revealed that the facial recognition cameras used by Southern Co-Op were made by a Chinese state-owned company.

Hikvision cameras have been listed as a national security threat in the US, while the UK Department of Defense has issued guidelines not to use the company’s equipment.

And the company has been blacklisted by US authorities for links to human rights abuses against Muslim Uyghurs in China, while MPs have called for a UK-wide ban.

Privacy issues: Southern Co-Op chain faces legal challenge over ‘Orwellian’ and ‘illegal’ use of facial recognition cameras (stock image)


Facewatch boasted plans to introduce its system to more than 500 stores and gas stations.

It claims the system is 97.8 percent accurate at recognizing faces even when face masks are worn – and stressed that it only used images of past perpetrators, none of which were shared with police.

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The technology sends an alert as soon as a subject of interest enters a property and is the only one shared national facial recognition list.

However, critics have questioned the legality of the system in stores.

Facial recognition cameras are a controversial technology, with questions about how well they recognize darker skin tones, alongside ethical concerns about privacy.

According to Big Brother Watch’s complaint filed with the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), the surveillance system uses “new technology and highly invasive processing of personal data, creating a biometric profile of every visitor to stores where their cameras are located.” installed’.

The group’s director, Silkie Carlo, said: ‘Our legal complaint to the Information Commissioner is an essential step towards protecting the privacy rights of thousands of people affected by this dangerously intrusive, privatized espionage.

“The Southern Co-op’s use of live facial recognition surveillance is extremely Orwellian, most likely illegal and must be stopped immediately by the Information Commissioner.”

Big Brother Watch’s ICO complaint alleges that the Facewatch system violates data protection laws because the information is processed in ways that are disproportionate to the need to prevent crime.

The single camera captures the faces of people entering the stores before images are analyzed and converted into biometric data.

This is then compared to a database of individuals the cooperative says have been stolen from its stores or have been violent.

Southern Co-Op, which is independent of the larger Co-op chain but operates more than 200 stores in southern England under the same brand, insisted it was not a list of people with criminal convictions, but people for whom the company evidence of criminal or antisocial behaviour.

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It said the technology was GDPR compliant, “while also allowing us to gather evidence against more prolific thieves in our stores before engaging with local law enforcement.”

In a statement to the BBCSouthern Co-Op said it would welcome “constructive feedback” from the Information Commissioner.

The chain added: “We take our responsibilities around the use of facial recognition very seriously and are working hard to balance the rights of our customers with the need to protect our colleagues and customers from unacceptable violence and abuse.

“The safety of our colleagues and customers is paramount and this technology has made a significant difference, in the limited number of high-risk locations where it is used.

‘Signage is posted in the shops concerned.

Southern Co-Op is independent of the larger Co-op chain, but has over 200 stores in southern England under the same brand. Pictured: A co-op in Bristol

“As long as it continues to prevent violent attacks, we think its use is justified.”

The supermarket’s system is provided by Facewatch, a live facial recognition company that helps shopkeepers catch shoplifters and abusive customers.

Facewatch says it maintains a database of the faces of “interesting subjects” for two years, although facial recognition technology is known to yield large numbers of false matches.

The company also claims that unmatched faces will be “removed immediately.”

Facewatch said its technology has been “proven to be effective in crime prevention, and our customers are experiencing a significant reduction in crime.”

It also supplies the biometric cameras to Costcutter, Sports Direct, Spar and Nisa.


Facial recognition software works by matching images in real time with a previous photo of a person.

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Each face has about 80 unique nodes across the eyes, nose, cheeks and mouth that distinguish one person from another.

A digital video camera measures the distance between various points on the human face, such as the width of the nose, depth of the eye sockets, distance between the eyes and shape of the jawline.

In China, another smart surveillance system (pictured) has been unveiled that can scan 2 billion faces in seconds. The system connects to millions of CCTV cameras and uses artificial intelligence to select targets. The military is working on applying a similar version of this with AI to track people across the country

This produces a unique numeric code that can then be matched with a matching code from a previous photo.

A facial recognition system used by officials in China connects to millions of CCTV cameras and uses artificial intelligence to select targets.

Experts believe that facial recognition technology will soon overtake fingerprint technology as the most effective way to identify people.