Stop filming me! Self-serve checkout cameras prompt privacy fears

Supermarkets are trialling overhead cameras at self-service checkouts to deter would-be thieves.

Supermarkets are trialling overhead cameras at self-service checkouts to deter would-be thieves. Photo: Getty

Self-serve checkout customers have noticed a very strange thing staring back at them as they make their supermarket transactions: Their own face.

Coles and Woolworths have continued to roll out cameras at the checkouts, in a bid to curb shoplifting.

Coles has been trialling the tech since April last year, while Woolies joined in at the end of May.

There’s a psychological trick behind it – the theory goes that if you’re forced to stop and take stock of your actions, you’ll do what you know to be the right thing.

In this scenario, the right thing is scanning limes through as limes – not as brown onions.

While they’re not at all stores just yet, customers have cottoned on to their presence.

At Coles, they’re quite hard to miss – the shopper is live-streamed onto a monitor above the checkout.

Coles is trialling cameras and monitors at self-service checkouts in Melbourne. Photo: Imgur

Woolworths has taken a subtler route: A box not unlike a self-facing camera on a video call appears in the top corner of the checkout.

Both supermarkets told The New Daily the cameras are part of several  measures they’ve brought in to stop those customers who don’t “do the right thing”.

Rather than catching the thieves, the idea is that when faced with their reflection, or the illusion they’re being watched in real time, it will deter would-be criminal behaviour.

Another consumer-tracking trick?

Both supermarkets have denied the footage is recorded and stored – it’s simply a feed.

But shoppers and experts alike aren’t sold on the idea.

As photos of the upgraded checkouts did the rounds on social media, users said they’d be boycotting the kiosks, labelling the cameras as invasions of privacy.

Woolworths said those customers who don’t feel comfortable using the camera-equipped checkouts can use the staffed checkout lines.

Privacy and cybersecurity expert Katina Michael said the advent of targeted checkout cameras was a need for concern.

Professor Michael, at Arizona State University, said the cameras would be brought in under the guise of loss prevention, as well as consumer convenience and helping individuals to navigate the system.

What started with an innocent introduction could soon be harnessed to gather more information about how we shop, from the innocent cash-or-card choice, and our facial expressions as we encounter a new payment option (are we happy, shocked, frustrated?) to basic details such as who we are and what we look like.

“If I go to Target, they can look at what I’m wearing – am I wearing a direct competitor’s clothing,” Professor Michael told The New Daily.

We’re already being watched

As we move more and more into an automated shopping system, more technology helps retailers to build a more complete picture of individual consumers, allowing more precise targeted advertising.

Loyalty programs, phone apps and in-store wi-fi can help supermarkets gain a real-time picture of just who’s inside their store, what they’re buying and what they’re not buying.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission last year released its final report into the nation’s loyalty scheme, and found a disturbing crossover of data harvesting then being used in targeting advertising.

Commission chairman Rod Sims said such practices could result in individual customers being offered different prices for the same product or service.

“Many consumers are increasingly concerned about receiving targeted advertising, in some cases from companies that they have never dealt with before,” Mr Sims said in a statement last year.

Online safety and marketing experts agree, the best thing a shopper can do for their privacy is avoid loyalty schemes or any programs that ask you to give up your personal details.

Worry about the cameras another day.

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