From CCTV to biometrics: What the retail sector is doing to keep up with advancements in surveillance technology

11 January, 24
Advancements in biometric technologies, such as facial recognition, voice authentication, fingerprint, or iris scanning, are driving increased affordability, sophistication, and precision for both security and policing.

Advancements in biometric technologies, such as facial recognition, voice authentication, fingerprint, or iris scanning, are driving increased affordability, sophistication, and precision for both security and policing. Consequently, these technologies are embedding themselves seamlessly into the retail sector, as well as the fabric of everyday life, emerging as integral components of security and surveillance frameworks.

Simon Alderson, CEO of First Response Group, examines how many of the traditional surveillance systems are gradually being replaced by technology and automation, with biometrics and in particular facial recognition being at the forefront and how it could play a vital role in catching shoplifters and reducing crime across the retail sector.

The retail sector has seen a surge of late in shoplifting. You only need to log onto the social media channels to see examples of people brazenly walking in and out of stores, helping themselves to goods as workers and indeed, some security staff, look on. It’s also widely known that these workers and security staff have been instructed not to intervene, for their own safety, and the new-wave shoplifter is taking advantage of this. Retailers are warning that a sharp rise in shoplifting is being fuelled partly by police forces not investigating the theft of items worth less than £200. Furthermore, the latest police recorded crime statistics for England and Wales show that in the 12 months to June 2023 there was a 25% increase in shoplifting. And new data revealed more than 200,000 shoplifting cases went unsolved in the past year, an average of 560 each day and more than half of all cases.

It is not just the theft of items that is causing concern, however, shoplifting often leads to violence and abuse directed against shopworkers. According to statistics from the British Retail Consortium, there are high levels of retail violence and abuse with more than 850 incidents per day. Furthermore retail workers are being physically assaulted and threatened with weapons. Alongside this huge human cost, nearly a billion pounds is lost to customer theft every year. However, the retail sector is now starting to implement new technologies used by the police and wider security services to combat this scourge.

Surveillance technology such as biometrics and facial recognition can make a big difference in securing shops. From retail centres to high streets, the use of these advanced cameras can detect and monitor known offenders as they make their way through shopping areas and keep track of known offenders through police databases. This kind of technology is already being used with great effect as I will discuss later on. Moreover, even at night these cameras can monitor stores and identify offenders keeping property and goods safe through night vision technologies.

Why Biometric Surveillance Technology Marks A Step Change in the Security Industry

Modern surveillance technology systems increasingly play a fundamental role in supporting security officers in the retail sector by providing granular level evidence that proves crucial in investigations, legal proceedings, and insurance claims. The integration of automation not only enhances operational efficiency but also results in cost savings for security measures.

The landscape of surveillance and monitoring has undergone profound transformation with the advent of digital technologies. Traditional systems, once solely reliant on human vigilance, are now being replaced by advanced tools and automation. One facet of this is biometrics. This shift not only optimises resource allocation but is transforming the efficiency and capabilities of surveillance as a whole.

A report published by the British Security Industry Association (BSIA) estimates that the total number of CCTV cameras in the UK stands at somewhere between 4 million and 6 million. That’s around 7.5 cameras for every 100 people in the country – the third-highest number on the planet behind the US and China. CCTV and surveillance systems are now firmly entrenched as part of the security landscape in the UK and new technologies such as facial recognition are now taking their place, including in the retail sector.

Security officers frequently encounter situations demanding documentation and evidence gathering in the retail sector where they need evidence that shoplifters have stolen goods. Surveillance technology proves invaluable in this context, as high-definition cameras equipped with facial recognition, capture detailed footage that can serve as vital evidence in investigations, catching thieves in shops red handed as they steal off shelves. This not only aids in identifying wrongdoers but also safeguards security officers from erroneous scrutiny or worse still accusations. However, facial recognition is not the only constituent in biometric identification.

Biometrics refers to a diverse set of technologies harnessing probabilistic matching to identify individuals based on their unique physiological features (such as fingerprints, iris, face, or hand geometry) or behavioural attributes (such as gait, signature, or in some settings, even their keystroke pattern). These characteristics are generally exclusive to an individual person, making them more effective and reliable for identity verification compared to methods like knowledge-based verification (e.g., passwords or PINs) or token-based systems (e.g., ID cards or licences).

Biometrics and facial recognition have also been used in shops, most famously in Amazon Go shops, where customers scan a QR code on their smartphone at the door, which opens a small access gate. Cameras and sensors programmed by deep learning software then track shoppers as they browse the aisles. As they walk around the shop and examine items on the shelf this is recorded, and customers then simply put items in their basket. This is all monitored via computer vision. Shoppers then simply leave the store; the bill is charged to their Amazon account and they are emailed a receipt. This new type of shopping is another way, apart from security, that retailers can better safeguard their goods and ensure they are paid for.

Biometric data and analysis is a long way from being commonplace in the retail sector, at least today, being much more the preserve of counter-terror or national security operations, but it does serve to highlight the degree to which biometrics are becoming ever more embedded in the process of identification, and it may well be that general security in the retail sector gradually introduces more of these systems as criminals and illegal groups wise up to the more robust defences they need to breech. With rising shoplifting and violence in the retail sector, it is worth having a conversation about how new technologies such as biometric and facial recognition can identify dangerous and repeat offenders and help combat this threat.

The rise of biometric technology introduces both opportunities and challenges. While it clearly aids in the identification and apprehension of criminals, concerns about privacy and security are never far away. Recent trials and deployments by UK Police, as I will go on to illustrate, highlight some of the controversy surrounding live facial recognition technology. The potential for abuse and infringement on individual rights underscores the importance of transparency, industry-accepted protocols, and a generally more holistic approach to surveillance implementation.

Facial recognition surveillance is rapidly advancing. As recently as October 2023, Essex Police reported three arrests, including one for rape, during their first trial using live facial recognition (LFR) technology. Similarly, in the same month, The Metropolitan Police utilised live facial recognition technology for the first time at a Premier League football match, resulting in three arrests, including one for a breach of a football banning order. The Metropolitan Police is also introducing ‘game-changing’ facial recognition technology to capture prolific shoplifters, matching retailers’ CCTV imagery with Scotland Yard’s custody shots.

Whilst this technology is clearly effective at apprehending serious offenders, privacy advocates, like Big Brother Watch, criticise it as ‘dangerously authoritarian’ and a threat to personal privacy and freedoms. Despite privacy concerns and criticisms from campaigners, minister of state for crime, policing & fire, Chris Philp, defended the technology’s ability to assist police in identifying serious criminals, thus freeing up resources.

Addressing these concerns may be possible through increased transparency and the establishment of industry-accepted procedures and policies. Nevertheless, it is crucial to recognise that facial recognition is not the sole solution for implementing surveillance technology. It must be integrated in combination with other technologies and procedures to enhance security, protect lives and shops, and preserve individual rights and privacy. Our own recent free report, ‘How Technology Advances Security in the Modern Age’, addresses this in greater detail.

In conclusion, biometric data holds significant potential for improving identification and security for the retail sector. Through this new technology, offenders can be identified and brought to justice. As has been discussed, the retail sector is now using this technology and with it we may well be able to reduce the shoplifting scourge which is blighting Britain. Although it requires careful handling, it is possible to embed responsible biometric policies and deployment in countering the impact of savvy criminals and would-be law-breakers in the retail sector.

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