Flat White

Australians are being watched

17 June 2022

4:52 PM

17 June 2022

4:52 PM

If it’s not bad enough that Australians have had their retail habits monitored via the (ethically questionable) government Vaccine Passport system, or that Silicon Valley apps hide their stalking habits in the fine print – an investigation has alleged that Kmart, Bunnings, and The Good Guys are using facial recognition on customers without their knowledge or consent.

While yes, Kmart, Bunnings, and The Good Guys have signs up at the front of their stores telling customers that this practice is being performed, it is akin to the fine print on phone contracts where consumers are not realistically being informed (nor do they require active consent before entering), especially given the value and private nature of what is being used.

Choice conducted a survey of over 1,000 homes and found that the majority, 76 per cent, had no idea their local retailer was recording them in this way.

Bunnings responded to the comments, insisting that the technology was being used to prevent theft and is operating in line with the Privacy Act.

‘At selected stores, our CCTV systems utilise facial recognition technology, which is used to help identify persons of interest who have previously been involved in incidents of concern in our stores,’ said Bunnings CEO Simon McDowell.

It sounds like a combined failure within the policing and justice system is leading to an arms race among retailers where customer privacy is being sacrificed.

‘This technology is an important measure that helps us to maintain a safe and secure environment for our team and customers. We let customers know about our use of CCTV and facial recognition technology through signage at our store entrances and also in our privacy policy, which is available on the website.’

Kmart and The Good Guys both offered similar statements.

Being spied on is not something most consumers are actively aware of, something which Choice’s survey highlights.


Kate Bower, an advocate for Choice regarding consumer data, said:

‘Using facial recognition technology in this way is similar to Kmart, Bunnings, or The Good Guys collecting your fingerprints or DNA every time you shop. Businesses using invasive technologies to capture their customers’ sensitive biometric information is unethical and is a sure way to erode consumer trust.’

Biometric data has been a trending topic of interest among billion-dollar companies at the World Economic Forum in recent weeks.

Writing in September of 2021, Algirde Pipikaite of the Strategic Initiatives at the WEF wrote about biometric data’s security applications in Afghanistan:

‘This system contains millions of fingerprints, iris scans and face photos of Afghan people who had their biometric data collected by US and coalition forces. The system was built more than 15 years ago to facilitate tracking and quickly identifying people for a variety of purposes, from distributing e-vouchers by the World Food Programme to maintaining an electronic national identity card system.

…One can change their password or an ID card, but one cannot change their fingerprint or iris. Biometric data is as unique as a person, and the privacy and security measures thus have to be evaluated accordingly when developing and implementing biometric systems.’

The emergence of biometric data has caused human rights groups to insist that additional security and privacy regulations be created to match the heightened risk posed by keeping this sort of data – not just from risks of hacking and criminal activity, but to protect individuals from government politics and corporate interest.

These concerns are not constrained to the third-world.

Also at the WEF, Julie Dawson and Cristian Duda want to see an increase in biometric data to ‘improve lives in a post-Covid world’.

Using Covid to justify a drastic increase in digital surveillance has been a common theme of governments and bureaucracies despite there being no evidence to suggest that a temporary cough warrants a China-style Big Brother system.

‘Human-centric digital identities are an enabler to alleviate the global risks of health, movement, travel and trade highlighted in the COVID-19 Risks Outlook, May 2020.’

In other words, the integration of Digital Identities into medical records (such as vaccination status) would allow governments and corporations to monitor and control the flow of people around the world.

‘The advantages of trusted claims are multiple from binding health tests to an individual being able to enter venues or travel, to relying upon education and work certificates issued remotely, to remotely signing property contracts. But with contact tracing, self-declaration or health credential approaches facing scrutiny – how to enable the new normal?’

The article goes on to praise Australia’s uptake of the global Digital Identity thanks to a supposedly Liberal government green-lighting a World Economic Forum project.

Facial recognition software is a product of Silicon Valley tech giants who, in partnership with governments and bureaucracies, make a fortune integrating additional levels of surveillance into the lives of the general public. Safety is the primary hook by which tech companies accumulate a fortune of biometric data, which governments are keen to use for a variety of worrying purposes.

The leap from facial recognition technology hunting for ‘known problematic people’ to using an integrated Digital Identity system to check customers for their vaccination status as they move through the commercial community is very small.

Facial recognition software remains a controversial technology with its use in the West drawing parallels to the Chinese Social Credit system where every lamp post and camera is watching the population. Do liberty-loving people inside capitalist democracies honestly want to be turned into goldfish with the government peering at them all day?

Most remain uncomfortable with large retailers trialling excessive surveillance and would rather sacrifice ‘safety’ for privacy – especially as it has always been primarily about ‘profit-protection’ rather than customer trust.

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