Woolworths Under Fire for Introducing Customer Surveillance Cameras

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Supermarket giant Woolworths has come under fire for introducing technology to surveil self-service checkouts, filming shoppers as they scan and pay for items.

More than 100 stores across three states have been trialing the software over the past year, and with permanent implementation across all stores on the horizon, many believe the move should be reconsidered as it has the potential to identify and gather data on individual shoppers, potentially using or even selling that data without a person’s consent or even knowledge.

Increasing reliance on technology

Woolworths already uses software to detect when items are not scanned correctly, with video footage of each scan recorded and played back to the customer instructing them to re-scan.

The retailer says this is to prevent ‘accidental’ wrong scans, but concedes it also works as a loss-prevention tool for those who may seek to commit the offence of shoplifting, which is a form of ‘larceny’ in New South Wales. 

Woolworths retains the footage for staff training – although has said that when footage is used for training customer faces are blurred and keypads – where people punch in their pin numbers, are blacked out. 

The problem is that not many customers would even be aware this is happening, or that their data is retained. 

Increased customer surveillance 

Ironically, the surveillance footage seems to have done little to actually improve the self-checkout experience for customers. 

Video footage would undoubtedly show the numerous frustrations that customers experience using the self-checkout, particularly since they are often the only choice for customers to check out – whether they have a handful of items, or an entire trolley full of groceries, and despite whether the supermarket is in a peak busy period, or a quiet one.  

Many customers are angry too, that even though they are now responsible for self-checkout, there are no real savings at the checkout – the cost of living is increasing, yet with less staff in store, it would be reasonable to think that supermarkets might be able to pass on HR savings to customers. 

Instead, they’re investing in sophisticated AI and spyware. 

Shoppers have been under surveillance for a number of years. In 2017, Westfield shopping centres came under fire for its ‘Smartscreen Network’ of small cameras fixed to advertising screens throughout Westfield shopping centres. The cameras were used by the company to detect individual faces and record the age, gender and mood of shoppers.

The shopping centre giant says it uses this information to constantly improve the experience of its patrons – but the company’s lack of disclosure has raised concerns about the inadequacy of privacy laws in Australia.

The inadequacy of the Privacy Act 

The Privacy Act 1988 (Cth) regulates the collection of personal and sensitive information, but under existing laws, retailers do not need the consent of shoppers to collect data obtained through CCTV cameras.

And if the issue is not addressed now – sooner rather than later – with better laws and regulations around consent and the right of big companies to film customers and retain the footage, then it’s almost guaranteed that this will offer a ‘green light’ for other supermarkets and retailers to follow suit. 

It might seem like a relatively harmless type of progression that we must accept along with the advances in technology, after all, CCTV cameras monitor most of our movements in traffic, as pedestrians walking streets and entertainment precincts, in airports and bus stations etc, but it does represent a slippery slope. 

Along with personal consent and privacy concerns, the massive drive towards self-service in a number of areas also has broader social effects that can also be detrimental. 

The proliferation of self-checkouts has reduced jobs, particularly for women and teenagers who typically undertake this type of work. 

Self-checkouts also decrease opportunities for social interaction, which impacts everyone differently – but it can exacerbate feelings of isolation and loneliness for some. 

For younger people, it can mean not learning and practicing transactional-type communication skills, reducing their confidence around face-to-face interaction. 

Yes, technology has a place, but its rapid expansion needs to be carefully monitored and as a society we need to weigh benefits with costs, across all areas – legal, moral, ethical and social.

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Sonia Hickey

Sonia Hickey is a freelance writer, magazine journalist, and owner of 'Woman with Words'. She has a strong interest in social justice and is a member of the Sydney Criminal Lawyers® content team. Sonia is the winner of the Mondaq Thought Leadership Awards, Spring 2022.

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