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Checking out Corporate Mass Surveillance in its Varied Genres

By Denis Bright

Thanks to a series of articles in Choice magazine, the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) has opened investigations into the legality of trials of facial recognition technology by a number of firms within the Westfarmer Network. This corporate network extends to Bunnings, Office Works, K Mart, Target and Coles. The trials began at Bunnings and K Mart stores. Fortunately, the OAIC is working on this problem to investigate some of the issues raised in that Choice article. I can see nothing that is sinister about these investigations. Corporate surveillances in its varied genres must always operate within the bounds of existing and future privacy acts at state and federal levels of government.

Portrayed as a haven for struggling mom and dad investors by neoconservatives, the Westfarmer network is also a haven for shareholdings by major multinational financial institutions. The Hongkong and Shanghai Corporation (HSBC) is the largest shareholder. Major global financial institutions own half the shares in the company.

Bunnings Chief Information Officer Simon McDowell continues to justify the facial recognition trials. A media statement was issued to me to assist in the preparation of this article. I have no problems sharing the comment in full in the interests of balanced but critical journalism:

Everyone has the right to come to work and feel safe from verbal and physical abuse however our team have faced a big increase in threatening incidents – despite us investing heavily in training and security to help protect them.

When we have customers berate our team, pull weapons, spit, or throw punches – we ban them from our stores. But a ban isn’t effective if it’s hard to enforce.

Facial recognition gives us a chance to identify when a banned person enters a store so we can support our team to handle the situation before it escalates.

For absolute clarity, an individual’s image is only retained by the system if they are already enrolled in the database of individuals who are banned or associated with crime in our stores.

We don’t use it for marketing or customer behaviour tracking, and we certainly don’t use it identify regular customers who enter our stores as CHOICE has suggested.

We’ve confirmed to the OAIC that the technology is temporarily switched off in our stores and given an investigation is underway we won’t be using it for the time being.

We’re extremely disappointed that CHOICE has chosen to mischaracterise the issue, especially given the extensive explanations we have provided to them.

Travelling overseas, and here, I see few instances of public nuisance as described in the media release from Bunnings. I am sure that these unpleasant incidents do occur. It is more likely that these rare incidents are generated more by mental health conditions over criminal or terrorist tendencies.

The dark shadows of bloody incidents at Port Arthur (1996) and Christchurch (2019) are a global reality which better and more open security might be able to contain in the future. Firearm violence is a fact of life in most countries. There were 134,000 deaths or injuries in the USA from firearm violence according to Amnesty International in 2017.

Australian crime rates vary with social stresses and the wealth divide in society. Australia’s overall crime index is significantly lower than in the bleak years of the recession of the early 1990s when the official unemployment rate reached double digit proportions. The neoliberal model of economic development continues to magnify the income divide in society. The legalized tax evasion which is tolerated by neoconservative governments reinforces the problem. Hospitals and welfare systems are currently stretched to the limit in Australia and beyond.

The Australian mainstream media seems to overlook the extent of homelessness in our streets. On these freezing nights in late winter, more people are huddling in public places with their few belongings in plastic shopping bags, shopping trolleys or suitcases.

I saw this social divide in the United States almost fifty years ago. I hoped that this would never be exported to Australia.

After the dismissal of the Whitlam Government by the Governor-General in 1975, Australia also headed towards its first phase of double digit unemployment since the 1930s in the last gasp of the Fraser Government in the early 1980s.

Image supplied by “Community Friends”

Poverty in the midst of a growing economy is still being relieved by food distribution at locations like Bunyapa Park in West End. The line of recipients extends into the adjacent streets every week.

Community Friends Ltd. is to be commended for its generosity as public sector budgets for job start and rent subsidies are tightened or subjected to more conditions.

Corporate Australia has a big faith in mass surveillance of Australians for protection against the social stresses of a competitive society. This faith imposes financial costs on struggling small business proprietors under siege from rent, leasehold and shared security costs in shopping centres.

As shopping moved from the high street to shopping malls and drive in centres like Bunnings Warehouses over the past half century, there has been an exponential increase in corporate surveillance of customers. Batteries of cameras can be observed at every access point. Even automated check-outs at some supermarkets carry camera devices to check on the failure to scan all items being carried out of the store. It is for the OAIC to keep a check on the legality of this surveillance. It is actually just the tip of the iceberg of corporate surveillance.

Mass surveillance continues through digital marketing strategies largely by the biggest firms in town. It is performed by business loyalty cards, email servers, mobile phones and the full battery of other soft media networks. Facial recognition technology maybe the least harmful of the new technologies if its existence is fully acknowledged to all customers after new limits are placed on its use as an outcome of the OAIC inquiry.

Even smaller shopping centres hire one or two layers of security guards at significant expense to the shopping centre. There are security guards within supermarkets themselves and in adjacent food courts.

Incidents of the type mentioned in the Bunnings media statement help to justify the presence of more security staff. I shared my observations about the Southpoint Shopping Centre in Grey Street, South Brisbane with readers some time ago.

The gravity of the theft of a chocolate bar or a packet of chewing gum as an after-school dare should be balanced against the blind-spots of staff at centre management. Since this article was distributed on 2 January 2020, a McDonald’s outlet has been added to the food court but there is no signage on the toilet facilities. Regular customers using the facilities are made aware that they are being videoed as they open the entry door to the toilet corridor. Older customers who are less aware of the layout of the shopping centre need to ask security guards or retail staff about the location of the toilet facilities. I do not understand what this arrangement is meant to prove.

Likewise, security services vary in quality across Brisbane. Some have an outstanding reputation. The best providers know how to handle local problems near school facilities. There are always possibilities for more liaison with local school administrators and students. The training of security guards is also of paramount importance to reduce community tensions over petty crime.

In the US traditions of profit making trade schools and commercial colleges, Asset College has emerged at nine locations across Australia to train security guards and security personnel. The web site promotions for Asset College claim that it is a family oriented business venture but there is no public access to available annual reports even though it is in receipt of funding from government agencies. Interested readers should check out the web site of Asset College and offer feedback though the replies section to articles published on AIM Network.

Some security providers have a real forte for openness about their operations.

The security services at University of Queensland (UQ) adapt to the presence of thousands of energetic students each day. Problems like a few youthful indiscretions on the oval at night are picked up on security cameras. Residential college administrators are tipped off about the inappropriateness of some old college traditions in a digital age. Good and inclusive security makes UQ a very quiet campus which seems to be largely free of cases of creating a public nuisance as described in the media statement from Bunnings.

Just after President Obama’s troop surge in Afghanistan there was a little protest at the entrance to the UQ library over the arrival of Retired Major General Jim Molan (now LNP Senator for NSW) to talk up Australian support for the troop surge at a public forum. No UQ security guards rushed to intervene but the event would have been picked up by security cameras and soon forgotten.

Forgetfulness however is not a feature of digital marketing with the support of artificial intelligence (AI). The extent to which saturation photographic surveillance has been linked to digital data the use of credit cards, reward cards, mobile phones, email servers and the vast array of other soft media resources is not fully acknowledged and rarely discussed in the mainstream media. Digital marketing and research firms probe every aspect of their customers’ profiles and often operates offshore beyond the controls of our existing privacy regulations.

Google Analytics (GA) in Chicago boasts about its digital marketing outreach:

Google analytics is a powerful tool. When you delve deeper into customer segments, you can learn valuable information about your customer base, and better target potential customers and ideal customers in the future.

By adding a simple line of code to your GA tracking code, you can unlock a ton of great data about your customers, including age and gender. You can get a breakdown of how many visitors fit into each category and what percentage of your traffic they make up.

Insights into audience demographics can help you identify which subsections of the population are your target customers and assist in building your ideal customer profile.

Firms like similarweb in New York as well as Tel Aviv and its global subsidiaries apply web analytics to assist in protecting corporate clients from competing firms.

Probably without the knowledge of Bunnings in far-off Australia, similarweb has generated a profile of the browsing history of customers interested in products across the hardware and homecare range. The digital analytics extend to the person interests and media viewing profiles so that advertising can be targeted to improve the market outreach of client firms. The resultant profiles are available are available at enormous costs. Interested readers should check out the resources available on similarweb but they will need to pay for the detailed reports.

It is in the financial interest of major on-line supplies of hardware and home range products to snoop on the operations of Bunnings itself. On-line providers can indeed erode the market share of local providers and have a vested financial interest in controlling unethical research by multinational rivals wishing to penetrate the Australian market.

Market analytics is also transforming democratic politics by fostering an interest in more sensational issues to divert voters away from more legitimate concerns about the quality of living standards, healthcare or community infrastructure through exhaustive media monitoring. This is contributing to the fracturing of mainstream political parties and the success of far-right political agendas.

In this murky corporate world, legalized tax avoidance is rampant as shown by publication in The Guardian (10 December 2021) of the latest round of major Australian corporations which paid no company tax since 2013.

Keen local students should be made aware that Knight Frank Australia Holdings Pty Ltd with its revenue base of over $133 million that year paid no company tax for 2019-20. Perhaps the company overspent on shopping centre security at Southpoint as the Australian subsidiary within the global Knight Frank empire with its global network of 500 company offices. Obviously, the Australian Tax Office was satisfied with its company tax returns under the previous LNP government as returned for 2019-20 should be finalized by now.

These complex issues of legalized corporate surveillance and tax minimization needs to be kept in the public domain as the Albanese Governments strives to improve health, welfare and affordable housing support. Readers should offer their feedback to keep the issue under investigation while the firms involved in digital marketing of course prefer self-regulation.

My computer hits to research this article have increased my exposure to advertisements for hardware products and home security devices. I am not looking for more wheelbarrows and security cams in my quest for a more inclusive and socially just Australia. I did support the petition from change.org to request Bunnings to stop selling glue traps which cause pain and suffering to animals.

Mass surveillance of customers is a highly sensitive issue in Australia and beyond. A greater market share can be delivered to those companies who want to be upfront about just what is going on in their stores and shopping centres with a little more commitment to accountability over digital marketing and tax minimization.

Denis Bright is a financial member of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA). Denis is committed to consensus-building in these difficult times. Your feedback by using the Reply button on The AIMN site is always most appreciated. It can liven up discussion. I appreciate your little intrusions with comments and from other insiders at The AIMN. Full names are not required when making comments. However, a valid email must be submitted if you decide to hit the Reply button.

 

 

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20 comments

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  1. New England Cocky

    Somehow I feel ”1984” is upon us. The overpaid executives of these corporations are protecting their own salary stream and so social position, while the workers are being ruthlessly exploited.

  2. Indigo

    Thanks Denis for keeping a track on the corporate spooks who are often dodgy tax evaders on The Guardian’s watch list

  3. Monica

    Enthusiastic staff in our supermarkets and shopping centres are beyond reproach and work long and hard to keep our cupboards stocked with goods. I cannot say the same about all that corporate snooping .I wish the Information Commissioner well in his investigation of breaches of privacy which must not stop at the specific facial recognition trials .

  4. Leila

    Seems the days of the old telephone party line in rural Australia are back. Everyone is listening to our private lives.

  5. paul walter

    BRILLIANT, as ever.

    Funny I didnt read it in the Telegraph.

  6. Denis Bright in Brisbane

    Thanks New England Cocky.

    South Brisbane is sacred ground for local indigenous people and leaders of the Labor movement.

    Former Governor-General and Labor stalwart Bill Hayden attended schools in the South Brisbane-Dutton Park area.

    Bill walked the police beat in Grey Street after national service at HMAS Cerberus at Crib Point.

    A naval officer from his period of national service became principal at Ipswich SHS when Bill lived in Brassall as member for Oxley.

    Bill Hayden gained federal funding for a new library at the local school to replace the old library which has been devastated in the 1974 flood.

    On the opening day at for the library Bill Hayden was not on the dias of invited guests due to a directive from the Bjelke-Petersen Government which was enforced by the new principal who replaced the ex-Cerberus officer.

    Hopefully, the rising generation of high school student in South Brisbane still learn to stand up for their rights and do not get too upset by the presence of security guards and surveillance cameras.

    South Brisbane is not the back streets of Memphis. Remnants of the old larrikan spirit may be necessary to cope with the remnants of decades of neoliberal values which must now be overcome with great difficulty.

  7. Jano from the Gong !

    whats next ,the mark of the beast ? Invasive technologies on the increase and excuses abound for their use and more common place ..Just like the current ( Plan-demic ) The new world order is taking shape ..shadow governments are infilterating Goverments and society ,,every thing is scanned now !!!! ,.cash is becoming obsolete , its a matter of time before bible prophecy and the beast system is fully implemented – perhaps , chips under the skin with the number code, that no man can buy or sell unless he has this number or code or scan mark ! ,

    The jig saw puzzle of Bible Prophecy is un ravelling before our eyes and the mass surveillance is on the increase and is set to be common place as , secret societies and shadow Goverments -( ,puppets of the Anti- christ ) bring in a one world government and system ,where no man can buy or sell ,lest he has the mark of the beast !! – Book of Revelations is open for reading for open and enquiring minds ,, REV 15 :18 …

  8. rubio@central coast

    Readers should offer their comments on corporate mass surveillance to keep this issue in the public domain for further investigation: Sometimes the darkest areas of social realitiy are simply overlooked in media coverage. Only the advertising jingles abound as corporations hide their real activities with PR hype. Legalized tax minimization for corporate gain is one of those dark secrets which the LNP had fostered since 1996 and even during the Menzies era. The myth of the struggling mom and dad investor is trashed by the extent of overseas corporate ownership of our cherished brand names.

  9. Sinn Feiner

    Ciivil liberties and mass corporate surveillance are always incompatible even when steered from the citadels of miltinational and digital marketing companies like the heartland of the British financial establishment

  10. James Robo

    How can thriving large businesses generate no company tax revenue over almost a decade?

  11. Tessa_M

    Community Friends at West End needs more corporate support to assist the working poor and those who have less but still survive in public spaces on cold nights.

  12. Stella

    Thanks for an interesting article about a topical and relevant issue.

  13. Pat

    An interesting and often forgotten topic – thanks Denis!

  14. Indigo

    Denis’ article combines basic reporting skills through contacts with Bunnings and some good investigative field work. Bunnings comes out reasonably well from the article as the reporting is very balanced.

    The real problem that emerged from the exercise was not just reporting about the trial of facial recognition in the Coles-Westfarmer network. The OAIC is competently handling this problem.

    Behind the obvious is the murky world of digital marketing analytics operating in offshore locations by firms noone has really heard about.

    similar web with its HQs in New York and Tel Aviv probably has surveillance operators slaving away on computers in low cost countries like India and the Philippines to process the feedback from artificial intelligence (AI) in surveillance of email and soft media data purchased from far-off Australia.

    Investigation of the problems raised by this article needs to continue beyond the IAIC to agencies like the ACCC.

    Do Australians want an economy where everything is being checked out on dark webs here and beyond in the interests of big and unethical corporations?

    Even recruiting practices are influenced by feedback from the dark web to recruit staff who want to act like robots.

    Trade union rights have been turned back two centuries to the days of those “dark satanic mills” of the British and American industrial revolutions where corporate wealth accumulated and families decayed.

    Struggling migrants from Britain and Ireland became the core support base of the early Labor Movement in the colonies.

    South Brisbane was indeed one of the heartlands of the early Labor movement in Brisbane.

    Great pioneers reached out to achieve something better than surveillance of high school students for the theft of chocolate bars and chewing gum as an after school prank.

    An earlier generation of convicts to Brisbane brought second offenders to Moreton Bay from other parts of Australia, some convicted of petty crimes and political dissidence.

    Let’s keep chipping away at these big problems today in a new digital age for the sake of our independence and human rights as in the 1890s.

  15. Denis Bright in Brisbane

    This article has been a worthwhile research project.

    Most Australians value their privacy and resent being researched liked guinea pics in a research lab.

    Bunnings is to be commented for offering a quote in the preparation of this article.

    Corporate surveillance has been a fact of life for Australians since shopping commenced the move from the high street to shopping malls and drive-in markets since the late 1950s.

    Corporate Australia needs to be more upfront about the extent and the type of surveillance of customers to control theft and for market analytical research with the support of artificial intelligence both in Australia and overseas locations as mentioned in the article.

    Our own businesses are also being spied upon by other overseas market research. Online firms are striving to penetrate local markets.

    With its special media quote to assist in the preparation of this article Bunnings was prepared to assist with my research.

    I wanted an assurance from Woolowrths that their newer self-automated check-outs do not contain photographic devices to identify customers along with the product recognition in automated weighing devices. This seemed to be a harmless enough request.

    Store insiders told me that the mirrors on the self-regulated check-outs are scare-crow devices to frighten customers into being more honest. This is very much in that Hill Song Tradition of the LNP in government over the past decade.

    Interested readers might like to check-out the Annual Report of Woolowrths for 2022 including executive salaries and ownership (https://www.woolworthsgroup.com.au/au/en/investors/our-performance/reports.html).

    Half of Woolworth’s shares are owner by major multinational financial institutions including HSBC Bank, J P Morgan, Citicorp and BNP in France. The ninety largest shareholders in Woolowrths own 61.52 percent of all shares.

    Big retail networks maybe evaluating customers but everyone can offer feedback too if Australia is develop a style of capitalism which is more user friendly.

    Readers can keep offering their own perspectives as market analytics is likely to become even more subterranean as Australian and global markets enter the more challenging world of the mid-2020s.

  16. Terri

    Good to see that this article generated some interest. If corporations are actually carrying Australia to a great neoliberall future, they could pay their share of company tax to fund our hospitals and essential services. This zero tax list from the Guardian newspaper and the ATO need further investigation as the weeks tick away before the special October Budget in 2022.

  17. Sin Fein for a More Peaceful and Socially Just World

    Now is the time to hit LNP sponsored tax evaders in the corporate sector and high flyers on executive salaries and perks. One CEO at a major retail network is receiving $2.7 million in an annual salary plus close to $2 million in extra perks. Can executive perks be paid into overseas bank accounts and investment funds to dodge the scrutiny of the ATO while our homeless sleep out in the cold on these unseasonally late winter nights?

  18. Denis Bright in Brisbane

    I have been in contact with Woolowrth’s media (media@woolworths.com.au) for a statement about the privacy implications of the customer images on self-regulated check out machines. Despite promises by phone, no statement has been received to this moment. I have forwarded a follow-up email as well.

    Some friendly Woolworth’s staff members claim that these images are harmless scare-crow devices to deter theft.

    A simple statement would resolve the problem.

    I don’t know if scaring customers is a good marketing policy for Australia’s retail supermarket giant as shown by the intriguing data in the latest Annual Reports of the Woolowrths Group to 2022 (https://www.woolworthsgroup.com.au/au/en/investors/our-performance/reports.html).

    Aren’t customers entitled to be informed about possible intrusions into their privacy through that combination of store cameras, security guards on site, use of reward cards and credit cards and these more recent apps on automated check-out machines?

    It could be worse of course. In many European countries, security personnel carry revolvers, tasers and request a search of customers’ pockets to grant permission to exit stores.

    Let’s work to stop this regressive corporate behaviour here.

  19. Denis Bright in Brisbane

    Woolowrth’s media office might remain silent but the new security installations in Woolowrth’s supermarkets are receiving their share of internet coverage.

    I do hope that the Sydney office of the Australian Information Commissioner is also watching these trials. What’s good for Bunnings should be scrutinized across the retail sector and for monitoring of those largely non-unionized workplaces by management.

    From Channel 7 Woolworths supermarket trials new overhead security cameras at self-serve checkouts
    The new overhead camera technology is being installed to help reduce scanning errors. Here’s everything you need to know.
    https://7news.com.au/lifestyle/woolworths/woolworths-supermarket-trials-new-overhead-security-cameras-at-self-serve-checkouts–c-6759708 (18 May 2022)

    WYZA WYZA Woolworths confirms trial video surveillance on self-serve checkouts: (https://www.wyza.com.au/articles/money/woolworths-confirms-trial-video-surveillance-on-selfserve-checkouts)

    Why should shoppers be kept in the dark about customer surveillance which has been popularized in the US for years by the NCR Corporation and other surveillance systtems?: (From NCR and Businesswire:)

    “Headquartered in Cambridge, Mass., StopLift has developed Artificial Intelligence capabilities that visually determine what occurs during each transaction to distinguish between legitimate and fraudulent behavior at the checkout. Most notably, StopLift’s technology detects scan-avoidance and flags unscanned, unpaid merchandise at the checkout. Examples include passing items around the scanner, leaving unscanned items in the shopping cart, and covering up the barcode while scanning.

    “We have been working with NCR since 2016 to integrate our patented technology with SmartAssist, which successfully detects shrink at the checkout counter with NCR’s self-checkout solutions,” explained Malay Kundu, founder and CEO of StopLift. “As retailers are looking to embrace frictionless checkout, our combined technologies will bring the advantages of loss prevention management to NCR’s global customer base in this critical time of retail transformation.”

    Let’s see some signage in our corporate spaces so customers can decide if entry is really worthwhile. Perhaps all these hassles can be avoided at less complex local shopping centres to avoid travel costs to those complex retail mazes.

  20. Indigo

    Denis, great investigative topic. Surveillance of customers has become a topical mainstream issue. The information commissioner should be working overtime to resolve these sensitive issues.

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