Southern Co-op is facing a legal challenge after a campaign group claimed its use of facial recognition cameras in stores is “Orwellian in the extreme”.

Civil liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch filed a legal complaint to the Information Commissioner relating to Southern Co-op’s use of Facewatch technology. Installed in 35 of the convenience chain’s 200 stores, the cameras use artificial intelligence to scan the faces of customers to help staff recognise shoplifters or those with a history of anti-social behaviour. Independent retailers have installed similar technology in their shops.

Big Brother Watch claimed it is the first known legal complaint against facial recognition cameras in retail and has urged the Information Commissioner to “investigate and stop unlawful processing”. It added the cameras pose a significant risk to the rights and freedoms of customers.

However, in Southern Co-op’s response to the group, the firm said photos are not received or given to the police, but the technology is used to “create an alert if certain shoppers enter the store and to share allegations of unwanted conduct between staff in different stores.”

Big Brother Watch director Silkie Carlo said: “Our legal complaint to the Information Commissioner is a vital step towards protecting the privacy rights of thousands of people who are affected by this dangerously intrusive, privatised spying.

“The Southern Co-op’s use of live facial recognition surveillance is Orwellian in the extreme, highly likely to be unlawful, and must be immediately stopped by the Information Commissioner.

“The supermarket is adding customers to secret watchlists with no due process, meaning shoppers can be spied on, blacklisted across multiple stores, and denied food shopping despite being entirely innocent. This would sound extreme even in an episode of Black Mirror, and yet it is taking place right now in Britain.

“This is a deeply unethical and frankly chilling way for any business to behave and I’d strongly recommend that people do not shop at the Southern Co-op while they continue to spy on their shoppers.”

AWO solicitor Alex Lawrence-Archer added that the legal firm shows there are “good reasons to believe the Southern Co-op’s implementation of live facial recognition technology is in breach of data protection legislation.”

Lawrence-Archer added: “This kind of high-risk, biometric processing needs a strong justification, and it’s not at all clear that Facewatch and Southern Co-op meet that test.

“We also highlight significant risks of unfair bias and inaccuracy in the implementation of the system, both of which further suggest that it is unlawful.

“Our data rights can give us a say in whether and how companies can use technology to exercise power over us, but only if they are enforced. That is why it’s urgent that the ICO investigates this system.”

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