OAIC urged to take action on Australian retailers over facial recognition

FILE PHOTO: Shoppers walk past stores of Australian electronic goods retailers JB Hi-Fi and the privately-held 100-store rival The Good Guys located in a shopping center in Sydney, Australia, May 19, 2016. REUTERS/David Gray/File Photo

SYDNEY (Reuters) – A major consumer group has referred three of Australia’s biggest retail chains to the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC), saying they use “unreasonably intrusive” facial recognition technology on customers and recommending enforcement action.

CHOICE, in a complaint to the OAIC published on Monday, said use of the technology at JB Hi-Fi Ltd’s appliances chain The Good Guys as well as hardware chain Bunnings and the Australian arm of big-box retailer Kmart – both owned by Wesfarmers Ltd – was unwarranted and in violation of privacy law.

The OAIC, JB Hi-Fi and Wesfarmers were not available for comment. The retailers previously told local media they used the technology for security purposes.

CHOICE routinely contributes to government inquiries involving consumer issues and its website says it was instrumental in many regulatory changes such as bans on risky financial products.

In the complaint, CHOICE policy adviser Amy Pereira said facial recognition technology brought “significant risk to individuals” including “invasion of privacy, misidentification, discrimination, profiling and exclusion, as well as vulnerability to cybercrime through data breaches and identity theft”.

“CHOICE urges you as Commissioner to investigate this matter further and consider taking enforcement action,” Pereira said.

Any investigation would be Australia’s biggest into the technology, though OAIC has looked into the matter before.

In 2021, the OAIC ordered the Australian 7-Eleven chain to destroy “faceprints” collected at 700 convenience stores after setting up in-store surveys on the matter. It has also ordered US software developer Clearview AI, which collects images from social media websites to build profiles of individuals, to destroy data and stop the practice in Australia.

The three chains in the CHOICE complaint operate about 800 stores, booking A$25 billion ($17 billion) in sales last year.

The consumer group said the three firms collected personal and sensitive information without consent and without clearly disclosing the practice in a policy.

Some stores have signs alerting shoppers to the technology, but “customers’ silence cannot be taken as consent” and many had no alternative place to make their purchases, CHOICE said.

($1 = 1.4465 Australian dollars)

(By Byron Kaye; Reporting by Byron Kaye; Editing by Christopher Cushing)

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