Spied on in Spar UK: How new AI technology used by convenience stores could see YOU accused of shoplifting by mistake
By Sourced Externally
January 8, 2024
Unsuspecting British shoppers are being profiled by AI-based security cameras which could mistake them for ‘shoplifting suspects’, it is feared.
Five common shopping behaviours or gestures could see innocent people accused of theft by shop staff.
These include placing items in bags and under prams and consuming produce whilst walking through the store.
Last year, shopkeepers across the country battled a never-ending wave of thefts in store with overall shoplifting rates rising 27 per cent across ten of the UK’s largest cities –up by 68 per cent in others.
While in 2022 some eight million items were stolen from shops leading stores across the country to turn to more intrusive forms of surveillance like AI and facial recognition – despite staunch opposition from civil liberties campaigners.
AI company Veesion currently operates in over 250 stores in the UK in chains including Budgens, Spar and Nisa and has developed a software that actively scans and monitors the movements of every customer.
Should a customer perform any of the five gestures or movements it deems ‘suspicious’, the shop owner will be alerted to a possible shoplifter and their image will be saved.
These gestures range from the obvious (placing items in bags or pockets and consuming items in store) to the extreme (placing items underneath a pram while in the store).
Hamza Saleem is the UK sales manager for Veesion and told MailOnline that despite objections widescale objections to the use of facial recognition and AI on the public, the brand’s software was not designed to penalise innocent customers.
He said: ‘Our system is automatically detecting theft, which is suspicious behaviours and these suspicious behaviours can be a range of different things.
‘So, for example, somebody put in items in their bag which could be a backpack or handbag, or even a shopping bag if the client wants to detect all these bags for information.
‘There’s also other suspicious behaviours, such as opening up products because a lot of store owners are walking around the store and they’re seeing open products. They’ll like to see where this has happened.
‘The main goal is to be able to stop them before they leave the store. But of course not every single person has that time to be able to go ahead and stop them right then and there.
‘So the next time that they come in the videos will actually stay on a group chat for the store so that they can come back to it. And if they see that person again they can quickly go back to that video and say: ‘Hey, guys. I’ve I’ve seen you in the store before, please don’t come back in.’
Since the widespread adoption of programs like Veesion and Facewatch, there has been a noticeable backlash from civil liberties campaigners about the dangers of allowing the public to be filmed by private companies.
According to Big Brother Watch, tactics employed by groups like Veesion set a dangerous precedent for the rights of UK shoppers.
Speaking to MailOnline, the group’s senior advocacy officer Madeleine Stone argued: ‘Collecting and storing records of shoppers’ movements is deeply intrusive and will inevitably lead to innocent members of the public being wrongly accused of theft.
‘An algorithm cannot reliably assess “normal” behaviour and is likely to discriminate against individuals with disabilities or physical or mental health issues.
‘More needs to be done to stop shoplifting but an experimental, AI-powered surveillance technology used in the total absence of legislation, safeguards or scrutiny is no substitute for a well resourced police force.’
Veesion claims that their technology has helped ‘thousands of retailers around the world to reduce up to 60 per cent of shrinkage’ and dispute that the programme tramples over civil liberties or profiles customers.
Mr Saleem explained: ‘Retailers can can choose what notifications they want to receive, so they can literally just keep on the notification about putting items into their clothes and leave the rest off – which would mean less people are flagged.
‘They don’t have to go ahead and intercept them right there and then they can always review the video and then see what happened after if the person actually pays for the items after being flagged.’
In a bid to stem the tide of shoplifting, other major High Street brands including Sainsbury’s, Sports Direct and John Lewis have introduced new security features including self-checkout barriers, offering tea to coppers and facial recognition cameras.
Bosses at Co-op had resorted to hiring undercover security guards to protect its stores and staff from thieves – while rival Tesco is getting staff to wear body-cameras to help catch shoppers who assault them.
In March last year, it emerged that Frasers Group, the owner of Sports Direct and fashion chain Flannels, has installed biometric cameras that scan the faces of shoppers and check them against a database of suspected criminals.
The camera providers, Facewatch, claim they use ‘proprietary cloud-based facial recognition systems’ which ‘will send an alert the instant a subject of interest enters your premises.’
After the new systems began being used in March there was uproar from MP’s and civil liberties campaigner’s sparking an investigation by the Information Commissioner’s Office.
This investigation surmised that no regulatory action against using the technology was required as it was ‘satisfied the company has a legitimate purpose for using people’s information for the detection and prevention of crime.’
FaceWatch was set up by a group of ex-policeman who wanted to give shopkeepers more power in the fight against criminals.
Speaking to MailOnline, founder Dave Sumner explained how a person’s status under the machines was decided and why law abiding consumers had nothing to worry about.
He said: ‘A subject of interest is somebody that one of our subscribers has reported to us for having committed a crime in their premises.
‘Instead of having a police investigation, it just means when that offender next walks into a retail premises there’ll be an alert sent to a Facewatch subscriber to say they’ve come in.
Normally they’re then approached by staff – making them less likely to attempt to steal anything.
‘CCTV records a crime that’s already happened, and that’s what gets reported to the police. We prevent crime and we prevent victims.
‘Every person, whether they’re an offender or an ordinary member of the public, has what’s called data subject rights under the UK GDPR legislation and we facilitate them exercising those rights if they want to appeal their designation as a person of interest.’
However the technology has been blasted by campaign group Big Brother Watch and branded ‘Orwellian.’
A spokesman said: ‘Rolling out highly intrusive AI-powered surveillance tools like live facial recognition will not stop crime but will do grave damage to our privacy.
‘Using these privately operated mass surveillance systems in supermarkets normalises airport-style security for buying a pint of milk and turns all shoppers into suspects.
‘Not only is this surveillance tech dangerously Orwellian but it is also highly inaccurate, putting entirely innocent people at risk of being wrongly branded as criminals.’
A spokesman for SPAR UK said: ‘SPAR is a symbol retailer group made up of company-owned outlets and independent shops.
‘As a business SPAR UK does not have a relationship with Veesion or use the technology in any of its owned outlets however independent retailers are responsible for the relationships and decisions they make on who to work with.’