Supermarket giant acts to limit self-service scanning ‘mistakes’

In a move that has privacy experts concerned, one supermarket giant is expanding its use of cameras and artificial intelligence (AI) in its self-service checkouts. 

Woolworths is installing cameras in its self-service checkouts across 110 stores in NSW, Queensland and Victoria to catch what it says are “accidental wrong scans”. AI will examine the footage and then play it back to the customer with instructions on how to scan the item correctly. 

Woolworths told The Guardian the main purpose is to prevent incorrect scans but conceded it will also work help to stop people deliberately scanning expensive items as less pricey ones. 

It’s that presumption of guilt that has digital rights advocates worried.

Samantha Floreani, a program lead for Digital Rights Watch, said the technology could make many shoppers feel as if they are constantly being watched and recorded. 

“This kind of normalisation of surveillance makes space for the growing use of invasive technologies in everyday life …” she said. 

“These technologies are framed as an improvement for customers, but in reality, it is punitive use of automation technology to cut costs on staffing for large corporations while treating every customer as a suspect.” 

How will it work?

A camera will be positioned overhead, angled to capture everything you do at the self-service checkout. 

If the AI detects any discrepancies between what has been scanned and what has been placed in your trolley, it will play back the footage of you scanning the item and give you an opportunity to re-scan. 

Woolworths says the footage cannot be viewed live, but may be stored for future training purposes. The cameras are not intended to capture faces, but if your face is inadvertently seen it will be blurred by the software before being viewed by a human. 

Woolworths says the system also blurs out PIN pads so personal banking details can’t be obtained. 

Is this needed?

It’s understandable that Woolworths is looking to prevent theft in its stores, but the recent high-profile Optus and Medibank data breaches show that even with the best intentions, collecting this kind of information can be a honeypot for cybercriminals. 

Associate Professor Rob Nicholls, from the University of NSW’s business school, told The New Daily he did not think the overhead cameras would actually achieve their purpose and that a better option would be a camera pointed at the produce being scanned. This would also reduce the potential for other sensitive data to be collected. 

“You need a camera, or potentially need a camera, when the customer is weighing goods and then saying what they are,” he said. 

“This way, people would be deterred from saying, for example, their avocados are potatoes to get them at a cheaper cost. 

“If you’re gonna [sic] put a camera up there in order to detect fraud, if you take a privacy by design approach, you’re actually not interested in the person, all you’re interested in is the [item],” he said. 

Is this is a step too far? Or a fair way to detect people who are being less than honest? Let us know what you think in the comments section below.

Also read: Law proposed to regulate facial recognition technology

Brad Lockyer
Brad Lockyer
Brad has deep knowledge of retirement income, including Age Pension and other government entitlements, as well as health, money and lifestyle issues facing older Australians. Keen interests in current affairs, politics, sport and entertainment. Digital media professional with more than 10 years experience in the industry.


  1. Thanks for the warning about WW filming express checkouts to pick up self-scanning errors.

    There is another perspective that the article doesn’t mention which balances the story a little.

    I choose to use self-service checkouts to save myself time by not having to wait in queues. I know I am honest, so if I make a mistake which costs the supermarket money, I am very willing to have it drawn to my attention. I accept that the COST of this convenience is the need to have AI checking what I do. I use those checkouts with this in mind. Otherwise, supermarkets might have to cease using self-service checkouts and force me to wait in queues. That is a much greater risk to me than being filmed whilst using the checkouts.

    The Digital Rights Watch people should focus on secret filming of people, and not make things difficult for businesses by challenging legitimate operations. People who are concerned about being filmed can simply use the operator checkouts.

  2. Some people are less than honest, that is true. Other people make honest mistakes. Even checkout attendant do this. I avoid self-service as much as I can, but I have occasionally arrived home and found that the receipt has listed a different item from the one I actually bought.

    The blurring of faces can only be achieved by applying an algorithm to the original image. Any algorithm can be reversed, surely, to then reveal the face. Security? Privacy? I think not total.

  3. Scanning the goods is already in place in some WW stores as I found out when i put through tomatoes as $6.90 when they were in fact $2.99 and it picked up the error and fixed by the attendant, not too unhappy about that!

  4. I always choose to use self-service checkouts and therefore have been subjected to this type of surveillance. In principle, I have no objection to it. However, I do agree that the product should be the focus rather than the person. I have had the experience where removing items from the trolley bought and paid for elsewhere were detected by the camera. This resulted in an immediate cessation of the checkout process and the red light flashing complete with a message onscreen that I had not scanned something. The video replayed to the assistant proved what had happened (not to mention I had a receipt for the offending item). I have to say that although I was totally innocent of anything other than being caught by the camera with a product in hand that was not then scanned, I did feel as though I had committed some sort of crime. The camera needs to be far more focussed on the product and the scale and not so far-reaching in the area around the checkout. There will always be people who steal whether by taking things and not going through the payment process or by trying to pay a lower price for a more expensive product. There must be a balance between stopping theft and protecting the rights of the innocent customer but not filming anything other than the scales and the screen.

  5. my machine at woolies wouldn’t let me finish checkout today. It told me I hadn’t yet completed my shopping but my trolley was empty. When I called for assistance the staff member told me the camera was picking up an empty package somebody had left in the trolley before me, it was flat and looked pretty battered but it was enough for the camera. i hadn’t noticed it. First I had heard of cameras watching me at the checkout though I’m pretty honest so don’t really mind them.

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