Bunnings and Kmart halt use of facial recognition technology in stores as privacy watchdog investigates | Facial recognition

Kmart and Bunnings have paused the use of facial recognition technology in their stores, amid an investigation from Australia’s privacy regulator.

Consumer group Choice last month revealed Bunnings and Kmart were using the technology – which captures images of people’s faces from video cameras as a unique faceprint that is then stored and can be compared with other faceprints – in what the companies say is a move to protect customers and staff and reduce theft in select stores.

The two companies are now being investigated by the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) over their use of the technology and whether it is consistent with privacy laws.

Bunnings managing director Mike Schneider confirmed an AFR report that the company had informed the OAIC that Bunnings had stopped using the technology.

Schneider accused Choice of “mischaracterising” the issue, stating that the technology was used only to detect when a person who has been banned from Bunnings stores enters a store.

“When we have customers berate our team, pull weapons, spit, or throw punches – we ban them from our stores. But a ban isn’t effective if it’s hard to enforce,” he said.

“Facial recognition gives us a chance to identify when a banned person enters a store so we can support our team to handle the situation before it escalates.”

Schneider said regular customers did not have their images retained in the system. The technology, however, needs to scan the face of every customer entering the store to check against the database of banned customers.

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The technology was already temporarily switched off in Bunnings stores as the company moves to a new system.

A spokesperson for Kmart also confirmed it had also ceased using the technology.

“We have temporarily stopped the use of this technology in our small number of trial stores given the commencement of the OAIC investigation,” the spokesperson said.

Kmart believes the use of the technology for “preventing criminal activity such as refund fraud” is appropriate and subject to strict controls, the spokesperson said.

Choice’s consumer data advocate, Kate Bower, welcomed the decisions but said the technology should be stopped permanently.

“Choice eagerly awaits the information commissioner’s decision on whether Kmart and Bunnings have breached the Privacy Act in their use of facial recognition technology. This will be a landmark decision that will guide the use of controversial facial recognition technology in Australia.”

It comes as 17 retail chains have told Choice this week they don’t use the technology in their stores, and have no plans to introduce it. Those retailers include Woolworths, Coles, Aldi, Target, Big W, Myer, David Jones, Dan Murphy’s, BWS, Vintage Cellars, Liquorland, Rebel and Officeworks.

The Good Guys earlier paused its use of the technology after preliminary inquiries from the OAIC and said at the time: “The Good Guys take the confidentiality of personal information extremely seriously and remains confident that the trial complied with all applicable laws.”