Supermarket Giant FOODSTUFFS Runs Facial Recognition Trial

Author: Tessa.

Hey! Remember when you used to only get finger-printed if you’d committed a crime? Now you just have to buy eggs!

FOODSTUFFS, which makes up one half of this country’s supermarket duopoly, is trialling Facial Recognition Technology (FRT) cameras in 25 supermarkets for the next 6 months. In these stores, upon entry you will be face-printed at the door like a criminal, despite the vast majority of us having never committed a serious crime in our lifetime. Because capturing a biometric data template of your face is the one-size-fits-all solution FOODSTUFFS is testing in their bid to keep customers and staff safe, in the face of rising retail crime. FOODSTUFFS says,

“…our FR trial is solely about retail safety and security, and learning if FR can help us better identify repeat offenders, so if they return, we can safely and quickly remove them, making the store safer for our teams and customers.”

Concurrent to the FOODSTUFFS dystopian decision to scan humans like walking ID cards, the company has also opened a “Social Supermarket” in Porirua, Wellington, to feed people who can’t afford the overpriced food in their regular shops. In this “Social Supermarket” shoppers must shop via a points system where they are allocated points based on the size of their families. FOODSTUFFS say their “Social Supermarket” allows shoppers “freedom of choice” and supposedly, the same dignity of a regular shopping experience.

Back to the Facial Recognition trial for the moment. Many people will think it’s a good idea. Philanthropic even. As, since the pandemic we’ve been pelted with news stories of retail ram raids, violent burglaries, assaults and people just brazenly walking out with trollies loaded with groceries.

But the reaction of the government and justice system to this post-covid retail-crime era has been to virtually stand back and let it continue. Security guards operate within a ‘do not approach offenders’ policy. Shoplifting is low priority for our dwindling, embattled police force. Judges slap ram-raiders over the wrist with a wet bus ticket and send them home. It seems that since the pandemic there’s been an expanding void where justice used to be, and it has retailers all over the country gagging for a solution. FOODSTUFFS has seemingly come to what many will think is a logical conclusion – a proposal to subject everyone to their high-tech surveillance. I wonder if this is what is meant by an equitable and inclusive society? No one escapes the eye of Big Brother FOODSTUFFS!

New Zealanders should be horrified by this Problem–Reaction–Solution trifecta that has consequentially evolved because of government inaction and one of the two largest supermarket chains in the country going full-authoritarian. It’s not the job of food providers to just take it upon themselves to assume the role of our protectors. Nor to ascribe themselves with the power to effectively steal our identities in the name of that protection, regardless of what they do with it.

But no doubt most people will be thrilled. They’ll swallow the ‘for your safety’ tripe because their brain has been rewired by the covid pandemic.

“Solutions” that demand you pass a biometric test before you are permitted to buy food sounds like the opposite of philanthropy to me. As do “Poor People Supermarkets” that encourage what suspiciously looks like a social credit score system.

FOODSTUFFS are picking up where the dystopian vax passes of the Covid era left off.

If the grocery giant is genuinely concerned about the level of retail crime in it’s stores, why isn’t it heavily lobbying the government about being tougher on crime, increasing police numbers by maybe –shock-horror– paying police more, and not doing things like importing gang members from Australia. Even the new coalition government is dragging their heels on retail crime which is bolstering the supermarket giant’s excuse to kick the ‘totalitarian can’ down the road.

Similarly, if FOODSTUFFS is genuinely concerned that families are going hungry in a “cost of living crisis”, why wouldn’t the company lower it’s prices and reduce the astronomical profits it has made (and is still making) since it rode the lockdowns while all other competition was shut down?  Perhaps then, there wouldn’t be a need for a ‘social-credit-scoring supermarket for the poor’!

Maybe the new government could do something about the FOODSTUFFS and WOOLWORTHS duopoly if they cared about people struggling to feed their families?

The Orwellian decision of FOODSTUFFS to convert its supermarkets – a place nearly all of us can’t avoid– into human data mines goes a step further than the usual Big Brother CCTV cameras, and it will need to be relentlessly challenged. Harvesting a biometric face template from customers is at odds with the right to privacy, obscurity and autonomy.

Of course FOODSTUFFS is trying to alleviate public fears with assurances such as ‘if you’re not a Person Of Interest your data will not be kept’. Ah! The ole ‘if you’re not doing anything wrong – you’ve got nothing to fear’ trope. But it’s FOODSTUFFS who define what a POI (Person Of Interest) is. Their Privacy Impact Assessment Report states a POI is someone who engages in a “Harmful Behaviour” incident. FOODSTUFFs also define what a “Harmful Behaviour Incident” is. See the problem? No? Maybe this will illustrate it better – elderly woman who wore an alledgedly “offensive” t-shirt in Otaki New World and got banned from the store for 2 years.

And, can we trust that they really won’t end up collecting and keeping all of our face prints? Everyone knows by now that data is ‘worth more than gold’.

Another assurance they’re giving us is that ‘watchlist’ data is stored locally with the shop. However the system provider’s data sheet boasts that:

“Imagus can be deployed stand alone or integrated with your Video Management System either as a local implementation or integrated across multiple sites with a central enrolment database using our Online Self Enrolment Centralised Register solution.”

If the Imagus software that FOODSTUFFS is using has the ability to track persons across all of its stores – why wouldn’t they? If not now, then eventually?

Similarly, the company insists POIs will only be manually registered on the watchlist by trained staff. However, the core Imagus system can be integrated with Imagus Edge where the data is processed at device level (on the cameras), by artificial Intelligence (AI), and then spirited away to a server for “processing”. Sounds to me like it could only be a matter of time before human discretion gets bypassed by AI. As with most innovative technologies the ongoing allure of the latest upgrades, smart API’s and Deep Integrations will probably be impossible for it’s owner to resist.

FOODSTUFFS have also, in their Facial Recognition Trial Factsheet, made the pinky promise they won’t share data with “partners” or “third parties” unless required by law. Hmm, is that really an assurance though, when we’ve witnessed how the law can be expanded, and our civil rights upended, for years, if the country is put under the auspices of an emergency or crisis?

There are so many other questions.  Like, how can the supermarkets use FR to “quickly and safely remove” say, a maurauding 501 gang member, if they haven’t been able to do so in the past? Will a laser gun drop down from the ceiling and incinerate them? Is it really about protecting people or about protecting profit margins? Also, if this trial is deemed successful, will it provide the springboard for other service providers such as telco’s, energy companies, and banks to follow suit? Will our identity data eventually be used interoperably between them all? Sheesh! What would happen to a Person Of Interest in this potential scenario?


But hey! It all just sounds like another conspiracy theory huh? I mean, I’m sure it’s not going to be a slippery slide and we can all trust FOODSTUFFs (and whoever else decides to use this ‘innovative and evolving’ technology) to behave in our best interests, right?

Updated: 24 Mar 2024.


4 Responses

  1. OK, its bad so how do we fight back against this invasion of privacy? All wear burkas? Hats, masks and sunnies?

    1. The Imagus FR system has “Deep learning algorithms trained against multiple demographics, mask/glasses/hats, Lighting variations, motion blur and large pose changes”. I’ve watched a promotional video where the software measures the pixels between the eyes to identify people. Though I would think it wouldn’t be smart enough to see through a creative full-face mask? Civil rights protests are still legal. Also, I’m pretty sure the managers of the trial stores would be only too happy to take customer complaints on a per visit basis?
      The trial stores are listed at the bottom of this page:

    2. Render supermarkets obsolete by creating alternatives.
      We are in our community. We are few, but our numbers are growing.
      We can’t fix these broken-by-design systems.
      No politician or CEO is coming to ‘save us’.
      It’s past time to tap into our kiwi ingenuity and get it done ourselves.

  2. Forgot to add: Ever since supermarkets locked us out for not having papers, we’ve been finding alternative sources to items we bought from supermarkets. We’re down to about 4-5 items. Everything else we stopped using, make ourselves, or buy elsewhere (as close to the grower or supplier as we can get). I look forward to removing those final items and walking away from supermarkets forever.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *