AI facial recognition cameras are already being used in UK supermarkets

Co-op supermarkets in the UK have been using controversial face-recognition technology in a bid to crack down on shoplifters.

The high-tech cameras from London-based startup Facewatch have been installed in 18 stores across the southern half of the country.

Gareth Lewis, Loss prevention and security manager at the Southern Co-op, explained in a blog post that the system “alerts our store teams immediately when someone enters [a Co-op] store who has a past record of theft or anti-social behaviour.”

If the AI camera system recognises a suspect, staff in the store are alerted via a smartphone app.

Mr Lewis says the system has been successfully trialled “in a select number of stores where there is a higher level of crime,” adding that over the past 18 months the cameras had “diverted over 3,000 incidents of theft.”

A spokesperson for Co-op said that there had been an 80% increase in assaults and violence against the company’s staff this year, and that the incidents were predominantly connected with shoplifting.

“Only images of individuals known to have offended within our premises, including those who have been banned [or] excluded, are used on our facial recognition platform,” the spokesperson told Wired. “Using facial recognition in this limited way has improved the safety of our store colleagues.”

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The new technology, says the company, gives store staff extra time to decide on what action to take, “for example, asking them to politely leave the premises or notifying police if this is a breach of a banning order.”

The company maintains that none of the system’s data is shared with police. “No facial images are shared with the police or with any other organisation,’ said the spokesperson.

Edin Omanovic, Advocacy Director at privacy International. warns that once the technology becomes widely known it might deter people from shopping during a pandemic. He says he has written to Co-op, regulators and law enforcement about his concerns.

The House of Commons science and technology committee warned in 2019 that police forces should not use facial recognition technology, citing accuracy and bias concerns.

Facewatch keeps its client list confidential, but the technology is known to have been installed in prisons, petrol stations and other shops across the UK.

The Daily Star has contacted Co-op for a comment.

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