Foodstuffs North Island (FSNI) – the 100% NZ-owned co-operative of more than 300 grocers across the North Island – has started trialling the use of facial recognition (FR) as part of its ongoing fight against retail crime.
The trial is taking place in up to 25 North Island stores and is currently intended to run for up to 6 months. The technologies’ ability to help better identify repeat offenders and thereby reduce harmful behaviour in store will help Foodstuffs North Island determine if FR becomes adopted more widely by the co-op.
“Everyone has the right to a safe working environment and a safe place to buy their groceries,” says Foodstuffs North Island Chief Executive, Chris Quin. “This trial of FR in our stores is part of our commitment to keeping our teams and customers safe.”
“Sadly, retail crime is a growing problem, here and overseas. Our North Island stores recorded 4,719 incidents in the October-December quarter of 2023 alone. That’s 34% more than the 3,510 recorded in the previous quarter. Shockingly, one of our security team was stabbed recently and our people are being punched, kicked, bitten and spat at. We’re seeing over 14 serious incidents a week, including an average of two assaults.”
“All too often it’s the same people, coming back to our stores despite having already been trespassed, committing more crime, and often putting our team members and customers at risk of abuse and violence.”
“We have a moral and legal duty to make our stores as safe as possible for our teams and customers, and we think facial recognition has the potential to help by identifying repeat offenders when they try to come back into our stores.”
“All images in the FR system will be instantly deleted unless a person has committed a crime, has been aggressive, violent or threatening towards our team members or customers, or has actively assisted in such harmful behaviour. This is a high threshold.”
“The trial is important because we hope to establish if FR will help keep our people and customers safe without compromising their privacy. When preparing the trial, we’ve been very thorough in ensuring we respect the privacy of our customers, including having a specialist, independent organisation design and review the trial – they’ll also evaluate the results. We’ve also engaged with the Office of the Privacy Commissioner to ensure they’re well briefed and aware of how the trial will work.”
How FR will be trialled
FR works by matching, in real time, the faces of people who enter a store against that store’s record of offenders and accomplices.
The FR system analyses facial features and converts them into an alphanumeric computer code. Both the images and the code will be securely stored.
The stores taking part in the trial will be a combination of PAK’nSAVE and New World supermarkets in cities and towns around the North Island. Each store will have clear signage at the entrance. When someone enters the store, their image will be taken by the FR system and instantly compared against the store’s record of previous offenders and accomplices. Only images of offenders and accomplices who actively assist in offending will be retained.
The FR system must detect a 90% facial match. If a store’s FR system matches the face of a person entering the store with that of someone in the store’s record of offenders and accomplices within the FR system, two specially trained team members will then need to agree it’s a match before the information is acted on. Team members have also been trained on how to best approach people who are verified as being repeat offenders.
Privacy considerations at forefront of FR trial
Foodstuffs North Island’s General Counsel, Julian Benefield, says planning for the trial over the past 15 months has included the appointment of an independent third-party organisation to design and oversee the trial, and a pre-trial consultation with the Office of the Privacy Commissioner.
“We’ve been very careful about ensuring this trial gets the balance right between providing a safe environment for our people and customers and being respectful of everyone’s privacy,” says Benefield.
The FR systems will be subject to strict access controls, with only authorised and specially trained store team members, who are required to keep information confidential, having access.
“Retail crime is our biggest safety risk, and we have a duty to do all we can to mitigate that risk. Each store has robust data protection safeguards in place. Images that do not match the store’s record of previous offenders and accomplices will be instantly deleted. Only images of previous offenders and their accomplices will be kept in the store’s FR system for longer – offenders for up to two years and their accomplices for three months.”
No information stored in the FR system will be shared between stores, and no information from the FR systems will be shared with third parties, unless this is required by law, or to run and evaluate the trial.
“No images of minors under the age of 18, or vulnerable people, will be enrolled into a store’s record of offenders and accomplices within the FR system.”
“All these parameters have been put in place to assure our customers that 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.”
Benefield says the trial’s success in achieving that goal will help determine whether FR is used more by the co-operative on an ongoing basis.
“Our trial will include a control group of at least 25 stores that have no FR system that we use as a baseline, so we can determine whether the use of FR is effective at helping us identify repeat offenders and their accomplices and lowering the rate of retail crime and the risk to people’s safety.”
Foodstuffs North Island’s trial of facial recognition will begin on Thursday, 08 February 2024 and is currently intended to run for up to six months.
The trial follows 4,719 incidents of retail crime reported across FSNI stores in the last quarter of 2023, including 513 breaches of trespass, up 52% on previous quarter. Repeat offenders are responsible for around one third of all incidents.