elevenM’s Melanie Marks’ regular trip to the supermarket brings her face-to-face with emerging privacy issues.

A couple of weeks ago, as I was nonchalantly scanning my groceries, I looked up and was shocked to see a masked face staring back at me. 

After I realised it was my own face, fright turned to relief and then dismay as it hit me that the supermarkets had – without consultation, and with limited transparency – taken away my freedom to be an anonymous shopper buying milk on a Sunday.

Just days later, the press outed Coles for its introduction of cameras at self-service checkouts. Coles justified its roll-out on the basis that previous efforts to deter theft, such as signs that display images of CCTV cameras, threats to prosecute offenders, bag checks, checkout weighing plates and electronic security gates have not been effective and the next frontier is a very close-up video selfie to enjoy as you scan your goodies.

Smart Company reported on the introduction of self-surveillance tech last year, explaining the psychology of surveillance as a deterrent against theft. How much a person steals comes down to their own “deviance threshold” — the point at which they can no longer justify their behaviour alongside a self-perception as a good person.

The supermarkets’ strategy of self-surveillance provides a reminder that we are being watched, which supposedly evokes self-reflection and self-regulation.

This all sounds reason enough. Who can argue with the notion that theft is bad, and we must act to prevent it? We might also recognise the supermarkets’ business process excellence in extending self-service to policing.

Coles argues that they provide notice of the surveillance via large posters and signs at the front of stores. They say that the cameras are not recording, and they claim that the collection of this footage (what collection – if no record is being made?) is within the bounds of its privacy policy (last updated November 2018).

At the time of writing this blog, the Coles privacy policy makes no mention of video surveillance or the capturing of images, though it does cover its use of personal information for “investigative, fraud, and loss prevention” activities.

Woolworths has also attracted criticism over its use of the same software, which it began trialling last year. Recent backlash came after Twitter user @sallyrugg called on the supermarket to please explain any connection between the cameras, credit card data and facial recognition technology it employs. Like Coles, Woolies says no recording takes place at the self-serve registers and that the recent addition it has made to its privacy policy regarding its use of cameras pertains only to the use of standard CCTV in stores.

So it would appear the supermarkets have addressed the concerns. No recordings, no data matching, covered by privacy policy. And my personal favourite: choice: “If you do not wish to be a part of the trial, you are welcome to use the staffed checkouts.

But these responses are not sufficient. Firstly, there is no real choice in relation to the cameras when a staffed checkout is unavailable. Secondly, our notice and consent models are broken, which overstates the actual power granted to consumers by privacy policy. We don’t read them, and even when we do, we have no bargaining power. And lastly, the likelihood of function creep is high. It is not a stretch to imagine that the next step in the trial will be to pilot the recording of images for various purposes, and it could be navigated legally with little constraint.

On a final note, this experience reflects many of the challenges in our current privacy framework including: the balance of consumer interests against commercial interests, the strain on current consent models, and even the desire for a right to be forgotten.

Thankfully, these issues are all being contemplated by the current review of the Privacy Act (read our ongoing blog series on the review here). We need these protections and structures in place, to create a future in which we milk buyers can be free and anonymoos.

Photo by Ali Yahya on Unsplash