By Robert Firth, Local Democracy Reporter
Shoppers say they fear for their privacy after a Sports Direct shop started scanning customers’ faces to identify potential shoplifters.
Brixton’s branch of the popular sports shop owned by billionaire retail tycoon Mike Ashley is one of at least 27 Sports Direct stores where facial recognition cameras have been introduced.
The software was rolled out in a number of shops at the retail empire earlier this year, but it is unclear how long they have been in operation at the Brixton store in Pope’s Road.
The cameras use artificial intelligence to scan the faces of customers as they enter shops and cross-check them with a database of suspected shoplifters. If there is a match, staff are alerted and may decide to closely monitor the person or escort them out of the store.
Frasers Group, which owns Sports Direct, said there had been a “significant” drop in crimes at its shops since it began using the technology.
But a number of customers at Sports Direct’s Brixton store said they were against the cameras.
Claire Baldwin said: “It’s like 1984, like living in George Orwell land. I don’t like to be facially recognised. I would rather they employ more people to do that job [of catching shoplifters].”
Ms Baldwin admitted the cameras wouldn’t stop her visiting Sports Direct in the future, but she added: “I just feel like we are moving more and more to a completely surveilled society and I don’t think it’s healthy.
“I don’t think in the big picture it will do us any favours because facial recognition can be used for not very nice things.”
Ellie Laycock, who noticed the cameras at the Brixton store for the first time while shopping there at the weekend, said she was “freaked out” by the technology.
Ms Laycock, who works as an artist, added: “I’m not a shoplifter but I like my privacy. I find it very distributing and quite dystopian.”
The live facial recognition cameras used by some Sports Direct stores are provided by Facewatch, a London-based retail security company.
In March, the Information Commissioner’s Office [ICO], a public body responsible for promoting data privacy, found that Facewatch had breached data protection laws following a complaint lodged against the company by civil liberties organisation Big Brother Watch.
Big Brother Watch’s complaint centred around Facewatch’s creation of watch lists of individuals blacklisted by shops, which are then shared with other users of the Facewatch software.
The ICO decided not to take action against the company, saying it was satisfied with changes that Facewatch had promised to make to its data processing in response
A spokesperson for Frasers Group said: “Like many other retailers, we use facial recognition technology to ensure the safety of our staff and to help prevent theft.
“Since installing this technology, we have seen a significant reduction in the number of criminal offences taking place in our stores.
“We take our responsibilities around the use of facial recognition extremely seriously and this technology is clearly signposted to customers wherever we have installed it.”
Pictured top: Sports Direct customer Claire Baldwin outside the Brixton shop (Picture: Robert Firth)
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