Are there really cameras controlling what people buy in Canada? Not exactly
Cameras installed in a grocery store in Canada have sparked a furore on Twitter, with some people claiming that they are being used to surveil the population and limit their purchases. The posts have been circulating since March 7, 2023. Our team spoke to the store, Walmart, who said that they installed the cameras, which run on artificial intelligence and are used to monitor if the products on the shelves are well-stocked.
If you only have a minute:
- A video showing what looks like cameras installed in a Walmart aisle in the city of London, Ontario, Canada has been circulating on Twitter since March 7, 2023.
- These posts claim that the cameras are being used to control the amount of food purchased by clients or to surveil them using facial recognition software.
- Our team contacted Walmart, who said that the cameras were used to detect when products were out-of-stock on the shelves “to help us improve the availability of products for customers".
- We also spoke to a lawyer who works with an association of Canadian consumers. He said these allegations have no basis in reality.
The fact-check, in detail:
"Ok, so I’m in the Walmart in London and I’m thinking all these cameras is for when … tell me,” a woman’s voice says in a video posted on March 7, 2023 on Twitter, which has since garnered more than 115,000 views and 2,000 shares.
As she films, the woman focuses in on several black boxes sitting atop the refrigerated shelves full of meat, eggs and dairy products. In a tweet shared half an hour later, the woman clarifies that she is in London, the town in Eastern Canada, and not the British capital.
Most people who shared this video believe that the cameras are used to track the movements of supermarket clients.
"Welcome to the 15-minute city. If you have exceeded your limit of meat, dairy and eggs, the digital entrance gates won’t open for you,” reads the text along with the sequence.
Another tweet, this one posted on March 10, 2023, goes even further, claiming that the cameras shown in the video are “facial recognition cameras”. “Total control/enslavement of the human population is the end goal,” the tweet asserts.
"Get ready for it. Your entire life is going to be living inside of a surveillance state,” warns this account.
While the initial publication says that the video was filmed in London, in eastern Canada, other posts shared later on claimed that the videos were filmed in London, the capital of the United Kingdom – likely a mistake.
Artificial intelligence keeping the shelves stocked
But what are the black boxes on the shelves? And how are they being used? Our team spoke to Walmart. The chain did say that cameras like this were installed in supermarkets across Canada. However, they denied that they were being used to surveil the population.
This is actually a computer vision AI solution that uses cameras to automate out-of-stock detection to help us improve the availability of products for customers. We use it in stores across Canada.
Back in September 2022, Walmart Canada explained on its website how this technology worked and how it would be used.
At pre-determined intervals, the cameras scan the shelves. When a product goes out-of-stock, it will trigger replenishment through Walmart’s existing inventory systems. An associate will receive the alert and re-stock the shelf as soon as possible to ensure the best product availability for our customers.
On its website, Walmart further said that the technology was developed by a company called Focal Systems. We checked out Focal Systems’ website, which features information about what they call a “ruggedised, cost-effective camera that scans your shelves hourly, allowing you to know exactly what is on your shelf".
At the time of the installation, Walmart shared an image on LinkedIn of the cameras. These cameras look just like the ones that appear in the recently shared video.
Technology used since 2019
Walmart’s use of this technology has been well-documented over recent years. For example, the American press agency Associated Press reported on it in April 2019.
Walmart installed these stock cameras in 70 pilot stores in Canada in November 2020, as reported at the time by Kam City and Chain Store Age, which are sites specialised in the sales industry. The chain was planning to do a massive roll-out of the technology in 2021 as part of a 3.5 billion dollar investment to transform their stores, according to the industry media Supermarket News.
Other supermarket chains in North America, including Piggly Wiggly and Metropolitan Market, also use this camera technology.
Can the government limit your purchases?
So, according to Walmart, these cameras are being used to monitor the stock and not customers. But have people used the cameras for more nefarious purposes?
Our team spoke to Alexandre Plourde, a lawyer and analyst with Option Consumers, a Canadian consumer organisation. He said there was no basis for the rumours spreading online.
In Canada, there are no governmental decrees or ordinances that demonstrate a desire by the government to control or limit what people can buy.
As for the other potential uses of the data gathered, it is important to know that these companies must, according to the law, report the way they use any data gathered. They would also need to get the consent of the consumer in order to collect data on them. And if they turned out to be using the data in a different way than what they reported, then they would be breaking the law.
No problematic usage of these stock-monitoring cameras has been documented to date.
In Canada, the law is clamping down on data collection
Plourde says that concerns about privacy are valid, especially when companies’ data collection practices are in rapid expansion across North America.
Supermarkets are using cameras and sensors more and more to gather data on their clients, merchandise stocking and buying habits.
In Amazon Go shops, for example, customers can choose their products and then leave without going to the checkout because cameras and sensors monitor what they put in their baskets and automatically charge them. So there is a lot of data being collected in these stores.
There are also shops where they have technology set up to track any cellphone on their premises in order to get information about their clients, like the areas where the most people visit.
In 2019, Walmart announced that they would be using cameras run by artificial intelligence to detect shoplifters.
Plourde believes that data protection laws in Canada still need reinforcing, adding that there’s been a push in recent years to strengthen them and call out companies who breach them.
For example, in 2020, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada reported that the company Cadillac Fairview had gathered biometric data and images of their clients without obtaining their consent, primarily through an anonymous video analysis software.
In June 2022, a bill on consumer privacy was introduced in the Canadian parliament. The bill aimed to strengthen limits on the use of artificial intelligence by forcing companies to get “clear consent” from their clients before using their personal data. The bill would also allow the Office of the Privacy Commissioner to impose fines on companies that didn’t comply with the law.