The technology is helping to combat crimes police no longer deal with, but its use raises concerns about civil liberties
Paul Wilks runs a Budgens supermarket in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire. Like most retail owners, he’d had problems with shoplifting – largely carried out by a relatively small number of repeat offenders. Then a year or so ago, exasperated, he installed something called Facewatch. It’s a facial-recognition system that watches people coming into the store; it has a database of “subjects of interest” (SOIs), and if it recognises one, it sends a discreet alert to the store manager. “If someone triggers the alert,” says Paul, “they’re approached by a member of management, and asked to leave, and most of the time they duly do.”
Facial recognition, in one form or another, is in the news most weeks at the moment. Recently, a novelty phone app, FaceApp, which takes your photo and ages it to show what you’ll look like in a few decades, caused a public freakout when people realised it was a Russian company and decided it was using their faces for surveillance. (It appears to have been doing nothing especially objectionable.) More seriously, the city authority in San Francisco have banned the use of facial-recognition technologies by the police and other government agencies; and the House of Commons science and technology committee has called for British police to stop using it as well, until regulation is in place, though the then home secretary (now chancellor) Sajid Javid, said he was in favour of trials continuing.
There is a growing demand for the technology in shops, with dozens of companies selling retail facial-recognition software – perhaps because, in recent years, it has become pointless to report shoplifting to the police. Budgets for policing in England have been cut in real terms by about 20% since 2010, and a change in the law in 2014, whereby shoplifting of goods below a value of £200 was made a summary offence (ie less serious, not to be tried by a jury), meant police directed time and resources away from shoplifting. The number of people being arrested and charged has fallen dramatically, with less than 10% of shoplifting now reported. The British Retail Consortium trade group estimates that £700m is lost annually to theft. Retailers are looking for other methods. The rapid improvement in AI technologies, and the dramatic fall in cost, mean that it is now viable as one of those other methods.
“The systems are getting better year on year,” says Josh Davis, a psychologist at the University of Greenwich who works on facial recognition in humans and AIs. The US National Institute of Standards and Technology assesses the state of facial recognition every year, he says, and the ability of the best algorithms to match a new image to a face in a database improved 20-fold between 2014 and 2018. And analogously with Moore’s law, about computer processing power doubling every year – the cost falls annually as well.