Facial recognition to play key role in UK shoplifting crackdown

The UK government is investing £55m in expanding the police’s use of facial-recognition systems, including a fleet of vans to scan crowded high streets, as part of a crackdown on shoplifters.

Announced alongside plans to give tougher punishments to serial or abusive shoplifters in England and Wales, as well as a standalone criminal offence for assaulting a retail worker, the facial-recognition funding will come out of the £230m recently committed in the Spring Budget to the roll-out of productivity-boosting technologies for police.

The overall £55.5m package includes £4m for vans that will be deployed in high streets and towns across the country, which will be mounted with live facial recognition (LFR) cameras.

“Since 2010, violent and neighbourhood crime in England and Wales has fallen dramatically, showing our plan to keep our streets safe is working,” said prime minister Rishi Sunak. “Yet shoplifting and violence and abuse towards retail workers continues to rise.

“I am sending a message to those criminals – whether they are serious organised criminal gangs, repeat offenders or opportunistic thieves – who think they can get away with stealing from these local businesses or abusing shop workers: enough is enough.

“Our local shops are the lifeblood of our communities, and they must be free to trade without the threat of crime or abuse.”

Other measures announced by the government as part of its retail crime crackdown include the electronic tagging of “serial offenders”, and the piloting of new “community sentencing measures” that judges can use to tackle high levels of shoplifting.

Offences recorded

According to data published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in January 2024, more than 402,000 shoplifting offences were recorded in the year to September 2023, up from 304,459 in the previous 12 months. It’s the first time since current records began in 2002 that the number recorded by police has risen higher than 400,000.

“To turn a blind eye to retail crime shakes the foundations of law and order which protect our society, and that is unacceptable. We are enhancing our plan and doubling down on the zero-tolerance approach needed to fight back,” said home secretary James Cleverly, who added that “there is quite simply no excuse” for violence or stealing.  

“The number of offenders being charged for these crimes is increasing, and while I want to see more people face consequences for their actions, our plan is designed to help put a stop to these crimes happening in the first place.”

Emmanuelle Andrews, policy and campaigns manager at Liberty, however, accused the government of trying to police its way out of the cost-of-living crisis. “Those in power should be working to ensure families can pay their rent and feed their children – not ramping up the use of oppressive policing tools like facial recognition,” she said.

Since the start of the UK’s cost-of-living crisis in late 2021, there have been numerous reports of people being forced to shoplift to meet their basic needs. In April 2023, for example, it was reported that the most shoplifted item in the London borough of Tower Hamlets was Calpol, while a Sky News report from a month later revealed that parents across the country were having to steal baby formula to keep their children fed.

Andrews added that the expansion of facial recognition’s use in relation to retail crime is a threat to people’s rights, targets those affected by poverty, and ultimately fails to address the root causes of shoplifting. “Surveillance tech like facial recognition monitors all of us as we go about our daily lives – and has in particular been used to discriminate against minority groups, and particularly people of colour,” she said. “It has no place on our streets or in our shops.”

Silkie Carlo, director of civil liberties at privacy group Big Brother Watch, added that the government’s investment in facial recognition is “an abysmal waste of public money”. “It is completely absurd to inflict mass surveillance on the general public under the premise of fighting theft, while police are failing to even turn up to 40% of violent shoplifting incidents or to properly investigate many more serious crimes,” she said.

Expanding retrospective recognition

The facial-recognition funding announcement also touched on the government’s launch of Project Pegasus in October 2023, part of which revolves around 14 of the UK’s biggest retailers – including M&S, Boots and Co-op – sharing CCTV footage with forces so they can run it through the Police National Database (PND) – where UK police store custody images – using facial-recognition software.

“Where CCTV or other digital images are secured, police are committed to running this through the Police National Database, as standard, to aid efforts to identify prolific offenders or potentially dangerous individuals,” said a government press release on the shoplifting crackdown.

Known as retrospective facial recognition (RFR), this version of the technology can be applied retroactively to any images or footage already captured, whereas LFR is used to scan and compare people’s faces for matches against a “watchlist” of images in real time.

Unlike LFR, which is used overtly with specially equipped cameras atop a visibly marked police van, RFR use is much more covert, and can be applied to footage or images behind closed doors without any public knowledge the surveillance has taken place.

Commenting on the project, Andrews said: “We should all be able to go to the shops without being monitored or harassed. We urge retail bosses to respect their customers’ rights, reject this tech and push the government to support people who are struggling to survive with the cost-of-living crisis.”

In November 2023, UK police chiefs announced plans to equip officers with mobile-based facial-recognition tools that will enable them to cross reference photos of suspects against the PND from their phones, and committed to increasing police RFR searches by 100% before May 2024.

According to Home Office data disclosed to The i newspaper and human rights group Liberty under freedom of information rules, the number of RFR searches of the PND carried out by forces in 2022 reach a little over 85,000 – more than three times as many as 2021. Figures for the first four months of 2023 suggested that year’s total was on course to exceed 130,000 – which would represent a further 52% annual increase.

It added that while 13 of the 45 UK territorial police forces denied having used RFR in 2022, the Home Office figures show they had carried out thousands of searches between them.

Legally questionable?

Writing to the Home Secretary on 27 January 2024, the Lords Justice and Home Affairs Committee (JHAC) outlined the findings of its brief investigation into the use of LFR by UK police, noting there is no clear legal basis for their deployments, and no rigorous standards or systems of regulation in place to control how technology is used by police.

Based on its findings, the committee made a number of recommendations, which included, for example, creating a new legislative framework specifically for facial recognition; publishing of national regulations on how “extensive crowd-scanning activity” is being assessed for lawfulness, including key questions around proportionality and necessity; and carrying out regular assessments of public attitudes towards the technology.

Responding to the JHAC in a letter published on 8 April 2024, however, the government dismissed the committee’s concerns around the legality of LFR, arguing there is already a “comprehensive legal framework” in place to govern police use of the technology, and that it has already helped forces quickly and accurately identify people wanted for serious crimes or who pose a high risk of harm.

It added that while only four police forces in the UK have deployed LFR (the Met, South Wales Police, Northamptonshire and Essex), all forces are “routinely” applying RFR to images captured by CCTV to identify suspects in the footage.

previous investigation by the JHAC into how police are using a variety of algorithmic technologies described the situation as “a new Wild West” characterised by a lack of strategy, accountability and transparency from the top down.

In July 2022, the government also rejected the findings and recommendations of that investigation, claiming there is already “a comprehensive network of checks and balances” to manage how police are using various algorithmic technologies.


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