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Facial recognition in retail and its implications

It is easy to see why retailers are turning to facial recognition to help prevent shoplifting. Retail crime is continuing to rise as police intervention is on the decline.

The BRC believes crime cost retailers £700 million in 2017, a 6% year-on-year increase. At the same time, it has emerged police are not investigating theft of items worth less than £200.

The onus is being placed on retailers to take matters into their own hands and as a result they have begun experimenting with facial recognition technology to identify suspected thieves.

Facewatch’s facial recognition technology is currently being trialled by a couple of major food retailers in the UK and a number of independent and non-food stores, according to the company’s chief executive, Nick Fisher.

He claims Facewatch’s technology has enabled the food retailers to reduce theft by 40-50% during the 12-week trial. Facewatch hopes to commoditise facial recognition and its technology can cost as little as £3,500 to install and run.

The company has built up a private database of “subjects of interest” that can be used by retailers to receive a notification when CCTV matches a customer to someone on the database. Facewatch acts as the data controller and retailers are also able to upload people they suspect of theft onto the database.

“The way we see it is you can pay to record people stealing things, or you can pay to endeavor to prevent people coming to your store to steal it in the first place,” says Fisher.

Societal implications

The benefits to the retailer are obvious, but such a technology has potentially large repercussions for the shopper and society as a whole.

Civil liberties groups are campaigning against the implementation of facial recognition technology. For instance, human rights organisation, Liberty, is currently litigating against South Wales Police’s use of facial recognition.

“We absolutely say this [facial recognition] technology shouldn't be deployed at all,” says Hannah Couchman, the policy lead on surveillance tech for Liberty. “We don't think there is any adequate law that covers facial recognition and even if there were, our concerns would remain about privacy, freedom of expression, and discrimination.”

The law

Recognising someone’s face falls under a special category of personal data under GDPR, which means higher standards apply to it. 

Facewatch has been lobbying government to ensure it is lawful to use biometric technology for crime prevention purposes, which means the public do not need to provide consent for its use. Other applications of facial recognition technology – such as using it for ‘access control’ to get into a house or office – needs permission to be granted by the subject.

"Even if you've got lawful grounds, there is then the question of whether it is the right thing to do ethically."

Fishers adds that the sharing of biometric data for crime prevention purposes needs to be “in the substantial public interest”. However, as this is such a new area the definition of what is in the substantial public interest has not yet been properly flushed out in law.  

Facewatch has worked with the Information Commissioner’s Office for guidance on what levels of sharing data is proportionate.

Christopher Eastham, AI sector lead at law firm Fieldfisher, believes lawfulness should not be the only consideration.

“Even if you've got lawful grounds, there is then the question of whether it is the right thing to do ethically” says Eastham. “And how is the wider public going to perceive it? Being transparent when you're deploying this kind of technology is the right thing to do.”

Eastham has fears about how a ‘subject of interest’ is determined and believes it runs the risk of turning the principle of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ on its head, potentially resulting in discrimination.  

Alan Goode, chief executive and chief analyst at biometrics consultancy Goode Intelligence, says a retailer needs to ensure “false positive rates are very low”.

“It is going to be a very negative PR story for that retailer if they get it wrong and accuse someone who is completely innocent,” says Goode.

However, Goode is supportive of retailers implementing facial recognition technology if it is legal and used ethically, such as signposting the use of the technology in-store.

Fisher argues facial recognition technology is necessary because when it comes to retail crime the industry is “sat on a burning platform” because of the increase in crime and lack of police response.

Despite the difficult situation facing retailers, it is vital civil liberties are not abandoned to the fire in a bid to escape.

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