Despite concerns expressed by regulators and privacy activists, the use of facial recognition technology appears to be on the rise and is becoming increasingly common in everyday life as a result of various different issues. 

One recent example of the use of such technology involves the Southern Cooperative, which has reportedly trialed certain facial recognition technology in a number of Co-op stores over the last few months.  The technology, developed by Facewatch, notifies staff of the presence in stores of individuals with past records of “theft or anti-social behaviour” and apparently has been implemented to try to combat a recent significant increase in attacks on employees by shoplifters.

The Southern Cooperative has confirmed that customers are notified of the use of technology with clear signage and believes that the system is GDPR compliant, noting that it does not retain customer images unless individuals have been identified in relation to a crime and that no data has been shared with the police. 

Notwithstanding this, use of such technology has led to criticism from privacy activists, who are concerned that the use of what is perceived as potentially very intrusive technology is disproportionate, especially as explicit consent from customers to the use of such technology is not obtained.  There are also concerns around the potential for bias and inaccuracy in connection with facial recognition technology generally, which can lead to individuals being incorrectly identified.

The increased use of facial recognition technology in everyday life is also being driven by other factors including, perhaps rather surprisingly, by the Covid-19 pandemic.  For example, the sudden and unprecedented global rise in the use of face masks apparently caused difficulties for certain facial recognition technology systems, which had to be modified in order to work effectively when individuals wear masks, especially when facial recognition was used to confirm individuals’ identities. 

Reportedly, such modifications have improved error rates significantly, with a number of systems being adapted to focus on the eye area of faces.  These improvements are leading some organisations to promote facial recognition technology as an accurate, sanitary and contactless way of confirming individuals’ identities in public, which hopefully should assist with improvements in hygiene and virus transmission.

Facial recognition technology is definitely here to stay.  While the privacy risks raised by the use of such technology should not be underestimated and careful consideration should be given to the lawful and proportionate use of such systems in practice, it is also important to remember the potentially significant benefits and opportunities that use of such technology can bring, provided that such use can be justified from a data protection perspective.