Sports Direct, Spar, Budgens, Costcutter and Southern Co-op are now among the growing number of UK retailers using a controversial Chinese state facial recognition system.
The biometric cameras work by scanning shoppers’ faces so they can be compared against a database of suspected criminals.
But they have been labeled “Orwellian” and “illegitimate” by critics, who claim that staff can put people on a secret “blacklist” without their knowledge.
So how does the facial recognition system work and which stores are already using it?
Here, MailOnline breaks down everything you need to know about the controversial technology.
The biometric cameras work by scanning the faces of shoppers so they can be matched against a database of suspected criminals
Sports Direct, Spar, Budgens, Costcutter and Southern Co-op are now among the growing number of UK retailers using a controversial Chinese state facial recognition system
How does it work?
Facewatch, the British company that supplies the Chinese-made cameras, claims its surveillance system is 97.8 percent accurate at recognizing faces.
It has previously stressed that its database contains only images of previous offenders and none of them have been shared with police.
Under the Facewatch system, cameras scan the faces of everyone entering a store.
These are then compared against a database of suspected criminals and if there is a match, the technology immediately sends an alert to the store.
Employees can also save images of those they “reasonably suspect” of stealing items or committing other crimes and upload them to a “watchlist” shared with other stores using Hikvision cameras.
All these so-called ‘subjects of interest’ images are kept in the Facewatch database for a year, unless it is suspected that the suspect has committed another offense.
Everyone else’s images are deleted.
Under data protection law, companies capturing facial recognition images must ensure that the processing of the information ‘can be justified as reasonable, necessary and proportionate’.
Where is it used?
Independent supermarket chain Southern Co-op has installed the cameras in 35 stores in Portsmouth, Bournemouth, Bristol, Brighton and Hove, Chichester, Southampton and London.
An investigation by campaign group Big Brother Watch, shared exclusively with The Mail on Sunday, also identified a series of Frasers Group stores that have installed the so-called ‘Facewatch’ facial recognition system to track shoplifters.
They include 13 Flannels, 12 Sports Direct and two USC stores.
Sports Direct, Spar, Budgens, Costcutter and Southern Co-op are now among the growing number of UK retailers using Chinese state facial recognition cameras (pictured)
Sports Direct staff — overseen by billionaire Mike Ashley — are alerted as soon as the AI-powered cameras identify an offender so they can either escort them out of the store or keep a close eye on them
Southern Co-Op is independent of the larger Co-op chain, but has over 200 stores across the South of England under the same brand. Pictured: A Southern co-op in Alresford, Hampshire
Some Spar, Budgens, Costcutter and Nisa stores also use it.
Staff at the Sports Direct retail empire — controlled by billionaire Mike Ashley — are alerted as soon as the AI-powered cameras identify a trespasser so they can either escort them out of the store or keep a close eye on them.
The company, which has more than 950 stores in the UK, has stated that ‘the rollout continues’, raising expectations that the technology could soon be commonplace on the high street.
Why is it controversial?
The Chinese Hikvision cameras sold by British surveillance company Facewatch have been flagged in the US as a threat to national security, while the UK Ministry of Defense has issued guidelines not to use the company’s equipment and MPs have called for a ban.
Hikvision has also been blacklisted by US authorities for links to human rights abuses against Muslim Uighurs in China.
Against: But they’ve been branded “Orwellian” and “illegitimate” by critics, who claim staff can add people to a secret “blacklist” without them knowing
Privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch, meanwhile, has filed a legal challenge with the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).
The complaint alleges that the Facewatch system violates data protection law because the information is processed in a manner disproportionate to the need to prevent crime.
The group’s director, Silkie Carlo, said: ‘Our legal complaint to the Information Commissioner is an essential step towards protecting the privacy rights of thousands of people affected by this dangerously intrusive, privatized espionage’.
She said the use of the live facial recognition monitoring was “extremely Orwellian, most likely illegal and should be stopped immediately by the Information Commissioner.”
Why is it necessary?
Crime experts say retail chains are being forced to take action amid an ‘epidemic’ of shoplifting and police failure to apprehend thieves.
It claimed that staff could add individuals to a watch list where their biometric information is kept for up to two years.
Concerns: Privacy rights group Big Brother Watch has launched a legal challenge over its use in the UK (stock image)
According to the British Retail Consortium, shoplifting has exploded from 2.9 million incidents in 2016/17 to 7.9 million last year.
Costs to retailers nearly doubled from £503 million to £953 million over the same period.
Daniel Garnham, an ex-police officer and president of the Security Industry Federation, which represents security guards, said police consider shoplifters who steal items worth less than £200 a ‘low priority’ and will not arrest them.
David McKelvey, a former Detective Superintendent with the Metropolitan Police who now runs a private detective agency, said many retailers ‘don’t bother calling the police’ anymore when criminals attack their shops.
HOW DOES FACIAL RECOGNITION TECHNOLOGY WORK?
Facial recognition software works by matching real-time images with a previous photo of a person.
Each face has about 80 unique nodes across the eyes, nose, cheeks, and mouth that distinguish one person from another.
A digital video camera measures the distance between various points on the human face, such as the width of the nose, the depth of the eye sockets, the distance between the eyes and the shape of the jawline.
Another smart surveillance system (pictured) has been unveiled in China that can scan 2 billion faces in seconds. The system connects to millions of CCTV cameras and uses artificial intelligence to select targets. The military is working on applying a similar version of this with AI to track people across the country
This produces a unique number code that can then be linked to a matching code from a previous photo.
A facial recognition system used by officials in China connects to millions of CCTV cameras and uses artificial intelligence to select targets.
Experts believe that facial recognition technology will soon overtake fingerprint technology as the most effective way to identify people.