Shoplifting is increasing. Costcutters, that operate Co-op convenience stores in many neighbourhoods, report a 35% increase in shoplifting this year, a total of 175,000 incidents this year. Physical assaults on staff are also 30% up and antisocial behaviour up 20%. Yet the police have failed to respond 71% of the time. A solution, to protect their staff and stock, is to pay some £10 a day subscription to the company Facewatch to install cameras which are connected by facial recognition technology to a database of known criminals.
This has provoked objections from civil liberties campaigners, such as Mark Johnstone, advocacy manager of the campaign group Big Brother Watch. They are outraged that there was a secret meeting in March between the Policing Minister, Chris Philps, with senior officials at the Home Office and the private firm Facewatch who are installing these cameras in many shops in the UK. It appears that the Home Office officials were instructed to write a letter to the Independent Commissioner for surveillance technology, pointing out the effect of shoplifting, and that the Minister agreed to “consider a speech” about the benefits of these cameras in combatting crime. The Minister did, however, stress that the Independent Commissioner is independent and he cannot change their rulings.
The Commissioner has evidently not ruled against this use of facial recognition technology because the website of Facewatch still proclaims the system provides, “bank grade security combined with legally compliant systems and processes.”
Retail crime statistics
This website also provides further alarming reports on retail crime:
- It costs £4,82bn annually
- 1.42% of turnover is the average cost of these crimes
- 93% of retail crime is not reported to the police
- 79% of those caught shop-lifting are repeat offenders
- The Association of Convenience Stores reports 63% of incidents in their premises are repeat offenders.
The concern of the shops is not only to protect their stock and takings: it is also concern for their staff who are threatened and sometimes physically assaulted. According to the Grocer, £200m has been spent by the shops on CCTV cameras and body cameras. Facewatch states, “we provide each individual business with a service that will reduce crime in their stores and make their staff safer.” Sports Direct (Frasers group) also favours the use of this technology to deter repeat offenders.
The favourable attitude of the UK Government towards facial recognition technology is at variance with the EU which is about to ban it in public spaces via its forthcoming Artificial Intelligence Act. In contrast the UK is about to abolish the role of Independent Commissioner for Camera Surveillance (the same role mentioned in the March meeting). The new UK Data Protection Act also removes the code of practice for surveillance camera use. Should we side with the EU human rights arguments on this, or with the British shops that claim they need this technology in our “nation of shop-keepers”?
It is often revealing to look up the political allegiances of the spokespeople in a debate like this. Big Brother used to occupy premises at 55 Tufton Street, a notorious nest of right-wing politics. Matthew Elliot, former CEO of Vote Leave and of Taxpayers Alliance and once LSE President of the Hayek Society, was one of its founders. Its main funders are Mark Littlewood, CEO of the Institute of Economic Affairs (which publishes on libertarian free market matters) and Lord Strasberger, a wealthy LibDem peer; Mark Johnstone, its current advocacy manager, a REMAIN supporter who launched the petition (signed by 1.6m people) against the suspension of Parliament in 2019. So here are some libertarian economists siding against the declared interests of UK retail business. Or are they, rather, (see the LibDem and the concern for democratic parliamentary rights) more concerned about the human rights involved than the cost of crime to business? Mark Johnstone says, “Government ministers should strive to protect human rights, not cosy up to private companies whose products pose serious threats to civil liberties.”
Duty of care
On the other side of the argument are the convenience shops whose staff are getting hit (literally) by the criminals. They can no longer rely on the police to assist, so they have to turn to the private companies who are offering effective technology. Equality campaigners may point out that facial recognition technology is biased against minorities. It is, but not when it is applied, like Facewatch, only to compare with a watch database of already identified offenders, identified by earlier camera capture. Charities assisting those affected by the cost of living crisis can point out that some families are forced to shoplift to survive.
How many of those are included in those “repeat offenders”? But the shops respond with evidence about “looting” – some offenders will try to haul away more than £500 worth (of higher priced goods) at a time. Many are connected with criminal gangs. There is a London store that is “looted” three times a day, and another where a kiosk has been breached 50 times in the last six months. The staff get to be afraid to come to work, and the neighbourhood may eventually lose a convenience store, having lost the battle against crime.
Surveillance is the solution
In these circumstances, a surveillance camera linked to a database is the solution. Those identified by the cameras as past offenders are not charged, or even put on a police list: they are simply not allowed into the shop. The data of customers not on the watch list is wiped every fortnight, so it is not sold on for any other AI purpose.