Shoppers outraged as Woolworths expands AI surveillance at checkouts

The supermarket has addressed privacy concerns.

Woolworths is expanding its new self-checkout technology to more Aussie stores as angry customers raise privacy concerns. The technology, which uses camera vision and artificial intelligence (AI) to detect when items aren't scanned correctly, was first trialled in February 2022. The trial has since been expanded, with the technology now in use at more than 250 stores across Queensland, Victoria and NSW.

Woolworths AI self-checkout technology
AI camera technology detects when an item fails to scan or is scanned incorrectly. The vision is not viewed live and any faces detected are blurred when the footage is reviewed so that the customer cannot be identified. Source: Woolworths

No more bogus scanning

While Woolworths says the AI technology is aimed at reducing accidental mis-scans and making "shopping more convenient and seamless", it also acts to combat theft, detecting if a customer deliberately scans an item incorrectly, for example, by entering avocados as a cheaper vegetable like onions. "While most customers do the right thing at our self-serve checkouts, we're all busy and mistakes can easily happen," a Woolies spokesperson told Yahoo News.

Woolworths checkout cameras
Cameras inside self-serve checkouts and overhead record what groceries shoppers are scanning and bagging, improving the accuracy of product selection and preventing mis-scans. Source: Woolworths

Customers slam checkout cameras

Commenting on a Reddit thread about the new technology, one Woolies shopper explained how she was upset after being "caught" moving an item she'd already scanned and was then forced to watch a video of her error. Meanwhile, a parent shared how the technology had made her shop anything but convenient: "The overhead one at the checkouts detected items in my trolley and wouldn't let me proceed without them being checked by staff," she said. "It was my son, sitting in the trolley."

It's not just shoppers that are concerned about the new technology. Speaking to The Guardian, Katie Bower, data advocate for consumer group CHOICE, said Australian legislation needs to be urgently updated to protect customer privacy. "Currently, businesses are making up the rules as they go along," she said. "Customers are left navigating the confusion and assessing the risks for themselves."

However, Ms Bower also noted Woolworths' AI technology is considerably less invasive than technology recently trialled and abandoned by Bunnings and Kmart. "The Woolworths cameras don't collect sensitive biometric data or any personal information," she said. "Woolworths has also taken steps to keep customers informed using a combination of in-store signage and public statements. Importantly, customers can opt-out by using the traditional checkout process. These are all consumer protections Bunnings and Kmart failed to implement."

Eye-level cameras not tracking you

Woolworths first started trialling security features at their self-serve checkouts in 2020, installing cameras that film shoppers at eye level. Customers are not being recorded in these images, the retailer previously confirmed to Yahoo News, as it's "a live reflection" only seen by the customer while they scan their items.

Woolworths self-serve checkout with sticker over camera
One Woolworths shopper shared how he used the sticker from an apple to obstruct a camera. Source: Reddit

Customers don't appear happy with these cameras either though, with one Reddit user revealing he covered the lens with an apple sticker as he believed his face would be "possibly recorded" for tracking purposes. "I don't steal, but I find it very unpleasant to have a camera shoved in my face like that," replied a fellow shopper. "Let's treat everyone like a criminal despite it only being a small percentage of customers. Theft rates will be the same, but you've now pissed off 99% of your customers by invading their privacy. Whoever thought these cameras are a good idea should be fired immediately," commented someone else.

Responding to previous backlash about eye-level cameras at registers, a Woolworths spokesperson told Yahoo News they're simply in place as a deterrent for would-be thieves. "We know the vast majority of our customers do the right thing at our self-serve checkouts. This is a new security measure we're trialling for those that don't," the spokesperson said at the time.

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