Kmart halts use of in-store facial recognition amid Australian privacy investigation

Bunnings is also halting its use of the technology.

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Retailers in Australia are the latest companies to back away from facial recognition, albeit under pressure. The Guardian reports Kmart and Bunnings have temporarily halted use of facial recognition in their local stores while the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) investigates the privacy implications of their systems. The two chains were trialing the technology to spot banned customers, prevent refund fraud and reduce theft.

The investigation started in mid-July, a month after the consumer advocacy group Choice learned that Kmart and Bunnings were testing facial recognition. Bunnings had already paused use as it migrated to a new system. Other Australian retailers, such as Aldi, Coles and Woolworths, have said they don't have plans to adopt the technology.

Both retailers defended their implementations. A Kmart spokesperson stressed that its facial recognition tech was used for "preventing criminal activity" and had strict privacy controls. We've asked Kmart's US operations about any possible implementations in North American shops. Bunnings managing director Mike Schneider, meanwhile, claimed Choice was "mischaracterizing" face detection. The company's trial is only meant to catch banned customers and doesn't store images for regular shoppers, he said.

The concerns aren't limited to data storage, however. Systems like these still have to scan every face entering a given store, and other approaches to facial recognition have exhibited gender and race biases or produced false positives. Companies like IBM and Microsoft have backed away from at least some uses over ethical matters, and American politicians have urged government agencies to stop using such platforms. Kmart and Bunnings might not escape similar scrutiny.