‘We’ll just keep an eye on her’: Inside Britain’s retail centres where facial recognition cameras now spy on shoplifters

At 11.12am last Tuesday, a woman in her 70s sauntered through the main entrance of the Ruxley Manor garden centre in Sidcup, south-east London. Upstairs in its offices, the phone of director James Evans pinged.

Facial recognition cameras had identified the pensioner as a potential criminal. Two weeks earlier, she had been caught stealing £15 worth of toys for her granddaughter and her image uploaded on to a private watchlist of known shoplifters.

Evans deployed staff to discreetly follow her around his store. “We’ll just keep an eye on her,” he said.

Even if she was caught stealing again, Evans had already ruled out calling police, confirming Ruxley Manor as among the growing cohort of retailers that have effectively given up contacting officers as a way of tackling the soaring problem of retail crime.

Faced with the cost of living crisis and corresponding surge in shoplifting, the Co-op last week became the latest retailer to express concern that officers are not taking rising retail crime seriously. Announcing that crime in its outlets had hit record levels – increasing by more than one-third over the past year – the chain shared footage of masked, often armed, youths smashing through glass doors and brazenly ransacking shelves. Elsewhere, images circulated on social media of Sainsbury’s encasing chocolate bars in security tagged containers to prevent them being stolen.

Evans, 48, says that the number of shoplifters has never been higher at Ruxley Manor. Yet the chosen alternative to policing – the move to install facial recognition technology by hundreds of retailers – has reignited familiar concerns over mass surveillance, privacy and human rights.

Although use of the technology by police has provoked widespread controversy, its adoption by private companies has, by comparison, received little scrutiny.

Screens show views of Oxford street
Police keep an eye on Oxford Street in London. Photograph: John Angerson/Alamy

The revelation that the Home Office is covertly backing the rollout of facial recognition cameras by British company Facewatch to tackle retail crime – effectively sanctioning a private business to do the job that police once routinely did – is likely to change that.

“Facial recognition can help businesses protect their customers, staff and stock by actively managing shoplifting and crime,” said a Home Office spokesperson.

Simon Gordon, founder of Facewatch, said that police should not be expected to help stores improve security in order to keep staff safe from offenders and abusive shoppers, saying that businesses had the responsibility to look after employees.

“It’s not the police’s job to look after your staff – you’ve got to take basic precautions,” said Gordon.

Evans agrees that the UK retail industry had moved beyond a point where it could consistently rely on the police. “In an ideal world [we would], but we’re far from there at the moment. The police have got enough to do as it is,” he added.

On Wednesday, ministers attempted to alleviate the pressures on policing by telling forces to slash the number of mental health-related 999 calls they responded to in order to free up an estimated million hours a year of police time.

Monitoring all entrances, Ruxley Manor has four Facewatch cameras that read the biometric information of a face as a shopper enters, before checking it against a database of flagged people. The garden centre has put up notices saying it uses the technology. Before the system was introduced in early 2020, Evans relied on the police to deter criminals, calling officers when catching even low-level shoplifters. Eventually, though, he gave up.

“We needed to keep staff with them, sometimes tying up vital workers for four to five hours as we waited for the police to turn up.”

Of the dozens of shoplifters apprehended at Ruxley Manor and handed over to police, only one prosecution was recorded.

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The Co-op last week cited data showing that, on average, 71% of serious retail crime is not responded to by police.

Close-up of a facial recognition camera
A police facial recognition camera in use at the Cardiff City Stadium. Photograph: Matthew Horwood/Getty Images

Already more than 400 British retailers have installed Facewatch cameras, prompting calls from campaigners for the deployment to be halted, with some arguing that their use to tackle low-level offending could be unlawful under privacy law, which decrees biometric technologies must have a “substantial public interest”.

Mark Johnson, advocacy manager of Big Brother Watch, said: “Live facial recognition is an authoritarian mass surveillance tool that turns the public into walking ID cards. When used in retail settings, these face-scanning systems work by adding customers to secret watchlists with no due process, meaning people can be blacklisted and denied the opportunity to enter shops despite being entirely innocent.

“This may sound like something from an episode of Black Mirror but it is happening in Britain today.”

An investigation by the Information Commissioner’s Office into Facewatch requested a series of changes to the way it operated, before concluding in March that its system was permissible under law. “We are satisfied the company has a legitimate purpose for using people’s information for the detection and prevention of crime,” stated the privacy regulator.

Gordon argues that Facewatch has few downsides, stating that images of innocent shoppers are kept on the system for 14 days – “less than the 30 days of CCTV” – and that the current accuracy of its camera technology stands at 99.85%.

Misidentifications are rare, he added, and even then the implications are minor. “You’re not being thrown in prison – there’s no miscarriage of justice,” said Gordon.

For retailers struggling on slim margins, he said, it has an economic incentive, costing £10 a day, or approximately the hourly wages of a security guard.

“It pays for itself really quickly. Within the first 90 days, normally it’s paid for the first year’s cost.”

Back on the shopfloor of Ruxley Manor, staff continued to follow the pensioner around the store. Evans noted she had visited the garden centre since her theft without stealing anything. “It might have been a one-off. We’ll just keep an eye on her.”


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