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Facial Recognition Spreads as Tool to Fight Shoplifting

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Simon Mackenzie, a security officer at QD Store, a discount retailer outside London, was out of breath. He had just chased three shoplifters who had escaped with several boxes of laundry soap. He sat at a desk in the back room to do something important before the police arrived. It is to photograph the face of the criminal.

He pulled out the security camera footage on his aging desktop computer, stopped and zoomed in, and saved a picture of each thief. Then he logged into the facial recognition program Facewatch. This program is used by his store to identify shoplifters. Store staff will be alerted the next time these people enter a store within a few miles using Facewatch.

“It’s like someone is with you and saying, ‘That guy you bagged last week just got back,'” says Mackenzie.

While the use of facial recognition technology by police has been heavily scrutinized in recent years, the application of facial recognition technology by private companies has received less attention. Now, as technology improves and costs drop, systems are penetrating even deeper into people’s lives. Facial recognition is no longer the sole prerogative of government agencies, but is increasingly deployed to identify shoplifters, problematic customers and legal adversaries.

The British company’s Facewatch is being used in retail stores across the country plagued by petty crime. For just £250 a month, or about $320, Facewatch gives you access to customized watchlists stored close to each other. When Facewatch finds a flagged face, an alert is sent to the store’s smartphone, and the employee decides whether to keep a close eye on the person or ask them to leave.

McKenzie said one or two new individuals are added each week, mostly thieves of diapers, groceries, pet supplies and other low-end items. He said he was sympathetic to their financial plight, but that the number of thefts had gotten out of hand, making facial recognition a necessity. Ordinarily, the facewatch would alert him at least once a day that someone on his watch list had entered the store.

Facial recognition technology is spreading rapidly as the West grapples with the advancements brought about by artificial intelligence. The European Union is drafting regulations to ban many uses of facial recognition, but New York City Mayor Eric Adams is encouraging retailers to try the technology to fight crime. MSG Entertainment, owner of Madison Square Garden and Radio City Music Hall, used automatic facial recognition to deny entry to lawyers from the firm that sued the company.

Among democracies, the UK is at the forefront of the use of live facial recognition, with courts and regulators approving its use. Police in London and Cardiff are experimenting with technology to identify wanted criminals walking the streets. In May, it was used to scan crowds at venues. coronation of Charles III.

However, its use by retailers has drawn criticism as a disproportionate solution to petty crime. Individuals rarely know how to know they are on a watch list or how to appeal. Civil society group Big Brother Watch called it “extremely Orwellian” in a lawsuit last year.

Fraser Sampson, who advises on policy on the UK’s Biometrics and Surveillance Commission, said there was “tension and hesitation” about facial recognition technology, partly due to privacy concerns and poor performance of past algorithms. Stated.

“But in terms of speed, scale, accuracy and cost, I think facial recognition technology could be literally game-changing in some areas,” he said. “That means that its appearance and development is probably inevitable. It’s just a matter of when.

Facewatch was founded in 2010 by Simon Gordon, owner of a popular 19th-century wine bar in central London known for its basement-like interior and popularity among pickpockets.

At the time, Gordon hired a software developer to create an online tool to share surveillance camera footage with authorities, thereby saving police time in filing incident reports and hoping to lead to more arrests. I expected.

Although limited in interest, Gordon’s interest in security technology was piqued. He tracked the development of facial recognition and came up with the idea of ​​a watchlist that retailers could share and contribute to. It’s like the photos of shoplifters that stores keep next to the cash register, but are added to a collective database to identify the bad guys in real time.

By 2018, Gordon felt the technology was ready for commercial use.

“I have to help myself,” he said in an interview. “I can’t expect the police to come.”

Facewatch, which licenses facial recognition software developed by Real Networks and Amazon, is currently deployed in about 400 stores across the UK. Trained on millions of photos and videos, the system reads facial biometrics as people enter the store and matches them against a database of flagged people.

The Facewatch watchlist continues to grow as stores upload photos of shoplifters and problematic customers. Once added, it will remain there for one year until removed.

Every time Facewatch’s system identifies a shoplifter, it sends a notification to those who pass the test to become a “super recognizer.” Within seconds, a super recognizer should see a match against her Facewatch database before an alert is sent.

But while the company has policies in place to prevent false positives and other errors, mistakes do happen.

In October, a woman buying milk at a supermarket in Bristol, England, was harassed by employees and ordered to leave. She was told that Facewatch had flagged her as a shoplifter.

The woman, who asked not to be identified due to privacy concerns, said her story was corroborated by documents provided by her attorney and Facewatch, and said there must have been an error. A few days later, she contacted Facewatch, which apologized for misidentifying her.

After the woman threatened legal action, Facewatch thoroughly investigated the record. The woman was added to her watch list when she was found to have had an incident involving £20 (about $25) of merchandise 10 months ago. The system “worked perfectly,” Facewatch said.

But while technology accurately identified women, it left less room for human discretion. Neither Facewatch nor the store where the incident occurred informed her that she was on her watch list and did not contact her to ask what had happened.

The woman said she had no recollection of the incident and had never shoplifted. She said she may have walked out without realizing she hadn’t completed her debit card payment at the self-checkout kiosk.

Madeleine Stone, legal and policy director at Big Brother Watch, said Facewatch “standardizes airport-style security checks for everyday activities like buying a pint of milk.”

Gordon declined to comment on the Bristol incident.

In general, “Mistakes are rare, but mistakes do happen,” he said. “If something like this happens, we will admit our mistake, apologize, delete the relevant data to prevent it from happening again, and provide commensurate compensation,” he added.

Civil liberties groups have expressed concerns about facewatches, saying their introduction to combat misdemeanors is illegal under UK privacy law, which requires biometric technology to have a “significant public interest” suggested that it could be

The UK Information Commissioner’s Office, a privacy regulator, has conducted a year-long investigation into Facewatch.The agency said in March that Facewatch’s system permissible under the lawbut only after the company makes changes to the way it operates.

The agency’s deputy director of regulatory oversight, Stephen Bonner, said in an interview that the investigation led Facewatch to change its policy, adding more signage in stores and only posting information about serious and violent offenders between stores. will only share and issue warnings on: repeat offender. That means you won’t be put on a watch list for a single misdemeanor, as happened to the Bristol woman.

“This reduces the amount of personal data that is retained, reduces the likelihood of individuals being added to these types of lists unjustly, and increases the likelihood that the list will be accurate,” Bonner said. He said the technology is “no different than having very good security guards.”

Liam Ardern, operations manager at Lawrence Hunt, which owns 23 Spar convenience stores that use Facewatch, estimates the technology has saved the company more than £50,000 since 2020.

He argued that facial recognition’s privacy risks were exaggerated. The only misidentification he remembers was when a man mistook him for his identical twin who had shoplifted. Critics overlook that shops like his operate on thin margins, he says.

“It’s easy for them to say, ‘No, that’s against human rights,'” Ardern said. If shoplifting continues, stores will have to raise prices or cut staff, he said.

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