'Quite dystopian': How supermarkets are sharing your data


The decision by Australia's two leading supermarket chains to ramp up surveillance of shoppers has raised concerns about who is accessing our customer data and how it might be used.

Digital rights activist Samantha Floreani said the increased use of the new technologies raised questions of privacy and consent.

Coles and Woolworths, which reported a combined $104 billion in sales in the past financial year, argue the move is necessary due to a rise in shoplifting. Coles' chief executive Leah Weckert said total stock losses, including stolen goods and waste last financial year had risen by 20 per cent. In response, the supermarket chain announced it would introduce body worn cameras for staff, overhead cameras, trolley locks, smart gates and biometric scanners to tackle rising theft.

Coles will introduce body-worn cameras, overhead cameras, trolley locks, smart gates and biometric scanners to tackle theft. JASMINE LOPEZ

Woolworths also confirmed it would be investing $40 million on closed circuit television (CCTV) upgrades, body-worn cameras and wearable duress devices. CEO Brad Banducci said its stock losses were up to $25 million per week.

It's not just about policing people's behaviour. It's also about being able to gather more and more information.

The social media age has meant many Australians give up their data on a daily basis. Floreani explained the key difference between social media applications and supermarkets collecting data rested with consent.

“When you've got all these things functioning together, they're all collecting data," Floreani, the program lead at Digital Rights Watch, told Newsworthy. "They're all sort of working in tandem, and you end up with an environment that's really heavily mediated by surveillance and automation technologies. This creates an environment where everyday people are treated essentially as suspects.

“They say that it's to be able to deal with the rising issue of theft. But people should have the ability to, you know, move throughout the world in their day to day lives without being constantly tracked and monitored, without having unreasonable amounts of their personal information collected and then used in ways that they might not necessarily understand or know about or consent to,” she said.

She believes supermarkets are investing in these technologies without prioritising consent because customers have to shop for their food.

“People don't have much choice but to continue to shop at these supermarkets because of their monopolistic power … Supermarkets are quite forward thinking, and I don't mean forward thinking necessarily in a positive way, when it comes to the implementation of different kinds of technologies and integrating them into a space that most of us have to frequent,” Floreani said.

Dr Paula Dootson, an associate professor at Queensland University of Technology, who researches deviant consumer behaviour and digital transformation, argues not enough consideration is being given to the customer and employee voice in the design and rollout of these technologies.

“For an organisation to use it on you without your knowledge and consent, that is not accepted by the public. There is sufficient data on the bias in facial recognition and it leading to inaccurate conclusions, especially in a policing context,” Dootson said.

The Australian Privacy Foundation has also raised concerns around the increasing usage of CCTV to tackle theft. The chair of the foundation, David Vaile, told The Sydney Morning Herald, “once you start using CCTV or any sort of imaging, they’ve got the raw data from which various biometric mechanisms might be applied. It’s not just facial recognition or iris recognition, it could be gait recognition or voice, depending on what the sensor is picking up."

Woolworths will invest $40 million on CCTV upgrades, body-worn cameras and wearable duress devices. JASMINE LOPEZ

Vaile warned that external service providers could access and analyse this data. “There’s the lack of reciprocity when you have technology like this. You don’t get to know what a company is doing, so you can’t even decide if you don’t want to be paranoid."

Beyond normalising surveillance, Floreani believes these technologies create additional privacy and security risks for the everyday consumer. “It’s really unclear in what ways this data is being used and sold on into the data broker market,” she said. “These technologies have a dual function. They're both punitive surveillance and also for profit. They wouldn't be implementing them if it didn't make good business sense for them to do it. It's not just about policing people's behaviour. It's also about being able to gather more and more information."

Floreani also highlighted the dangers of the crime intelligence platform Auror, which is used in thousands of stores across Australia, including Coles and Woolworths. Auror reportedly shares information about suspects with supermarkets and police, alerting users when people enter their stores and using analytics to “prevent crime before it happens”. The company works closely with Australian police forces, which have access to the data collected on millions of Australians.

“There's been some reporting about data driven crime intelligence software which essentially enables the supermarkets to be able to aggregate data and gather more insights and create profiles on people, which then gets shared with law enforcement, which is quite concerning,” Floreani said.

For instance, when you enter a supermarket carpark, the automatic licence-plate recognition technology that opens the boom gate also serves as a car-tracking network, information that can be shared with police.

“Some of them link up to things like license plate recognition, so being able to use the cameras outside of the store to be able to recognise the license plates on cars, and then, be able to match that back up with other databases. It starts to get quite dystopian, really,” Floreani said.

Overhead cameras at Woolworths self-checkout. JASMINE LOPEZ

For Dootson, a mixed approach of low- and high-tech solutions will be required to combat in-store theft as there are many different "types" of offenders. What remains most important is involving the customer and employee voice.

“The best practice of introducing data-intensive technologies would be to make customers aware of what is being used in stores, including how and what data is collected and what it is being used for, and to enable opt out options where possible. Think cookies on websites,” Dootson said.

Floreani said turning to these kinds of surveillance-based technology solutions for complex social problems may ends up creating more problems. "It says a lot that supermarkets are prioritising investment in these really punitive technologies and turning such huge profits rather than considering things like lowering their profit margins and lowering prices somewhat, so people are less compelled to steal.

“Consumers are getting rightly very angry about it, especially because we're in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis and we know the supermarkets are raking in huge profits … To be looking to extract valuable insights from our shopping behaviour in order to turn more of a profit is, I think, quite foul."

Woolworths did not respond to Newsworthy's questions on how its surveillance data was being used. Coles referred all questions to the Australian Retailers Association, which did not respond to our questions.


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