Watchdog’s facial recognition probe ongoing after 12 months

Justin Hendry

Australia’s privacy watchdog is still investigating Bunnings and Kmart over the use of facial recognition technology on in-store CCTV footage more than 12 months after the controversial practice was discovered.

The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner opened its probe into the two Wesfarmers-owned retailers in July last year following an investigation of the country’s 25 largest retailers by consumer group Choice.

Choice found that Bunnings and Kmart, as well as The Good Guys, had analysed CCTV footage to create profiles or ‘face prints’ without properly informing customers or receiving clear consent, resulting in a complaint to the privacy watchdog.

The companies initially defended their use of facial recognition, which they said was needed to reduce theft and keep employees safe and was signposted at stores and in online privacy policies, but later paused its use.

At Senate Estimates in February, Australian Information Commissioner Angelene Falk said the investigation into the use of facial recognition by Bunnings and Kmart had progressed “substantially” and that she expected it “could be resolved this financial year”.

“We aim to resolve all commissioner-initiated investigations in a timely manner. Our KPI is 80 per cent within 12 months,” she said, adding that meeting this aim has become more difficult with recent investigations.

Ms Falk also confirmed that preliminary inquiries into the The Good Guys – which was spared from the full investigation after agreeing to pause its use of facial recognition – had been dropped after it made the decision to ditch the technology permanently.

But 12 months on, the investigation still hasn’t been finalised, with an OAIC spokesperson telling it is continuing, with no timeframe now available for when it might be completed.

“The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner cannot comment on timeframes for finalisation at this time as the investigation has raised complex issues requiring further consideration,” the spokesperson said.

Last week, Bunnings was forced to clarify that it had reintroduced facial recognition after an eagle-eyed shopper posted a photo of a storefront sign cautioning about the use of the technology on Reddit.

“After public backlash over concerns of privacy breaches and an investigation by Choice, Bunnings said they would suspend their program. The have now restarted scanning patrons,” the Reddit user said.

The Albanese government is currently consulting on more than 110 recommendations made by the by the Attorney General’s Department in its review of the Privacy Act earlier this year to improve Australia privacy regime.

A “right to erasure” that goes further than the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation and the introduction of fair and reasonable information handling principles are among the reforms being considered.

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