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The epidemic that won’t go away

July 23, 2024 by Alistair Enser

Don’t worry: it’s not Covid. But in some ways, it’s just as insidious, and it refuses to go away. Yet just like Covid, we have it in our power to almost eradicate it.

In my last blog, I wrote how John Lewis boss Sharon White has warned that criminals have a “licence to shoplift” following an increase in cases. Citing research by the British Retail Consortium, she claimed that shoplifting has surged 26%, with more than 850 incidents of violence and abuse towards shop workers every day. “It’s a crisis that is hiding in plain sight,” she said.

Only a week later, the Co-Op has said that crime in its outlets had hit record levels, increasing by more than one-third over the past year – with around 1,000 cases of crime, shoplifting and anti-social behaviour in its shops every day in the six months to June 2023. Co-op Food managing director Matt Hood said retail crime was driven by “repeat and prolific offenders and, organised criminal gangs”. In the worst cases, he said it could even be described as “looting.”

He called for Police to get tougher on repeat offenders, as the Co-Op’s campaigns and public affairs director Paul Gerrard said one store in the West Country had “the same individual target our store stealing thousands of pounds worth of product every single week”. The Co-Op has suggested that some areas of the UK could become “no go areas” for stores, as the prevalence of crime makes the businesses unviable – leaving a “retail desert” for the local community.

In which case, the criminals have won. Is this really what we want? Police forces around the UK are stretched, and often unable to respond to incidents with the speed needed. As I wrote previously, if anything, retail crime is probably underreported: when Sussex police and crime commissioner Katy Bourne introduced new reporting systems, dedicated officers and a campaign to win back retailer trust, the region saw a 42% increase in crime reporting.

This situation is clearly untenable and, while reprioritisation of police resources might help, I cannot see why, in the face of an epidemic of retail theft, violence and anti social behaviour, facial recognition technology is still frowned on by some.

Yes, I know; I addressed this subject in my last blog. But in the intervening two weeks, yet another major retailer has come out saying if may have to close stores plagued by crime. One store worker’s experience of being bottled by a “customer” was featured in the Daily Mail only a few days after my last blog. I, therefore, make no apology for bringing up the subject again because, over those same two weeks, I also read another article reflecting hostility to facial recognition technology.

The article in the Guardian claims, in alarmist tones, that “Home Office officials have drawn up secret plans to lobby the independent privacy regulator in an attempt to push the rollout of controversial facial recognition technology into high street shops and supermarkets.” Citing the usual “fears” over civil liberties, the article does, however, mention the positive experiences of Mike Ashley’s Frasers Group, which has said the technology has cut crime.

Enough is enough. Shop workers shouldn’t have to fear being bottled at their place of work. It’s unacceptable. We live in 2023, not 1723, for goodness’ sake – there is a technological solution to this. The argument about fair use of facial recognition technology is well rehearsed, and the regulatory environment around GDPR is well established. I and many others have explained how facial recognition technology is used alongside security officers as a tool that supports their enquiries and intervention, as necessary. It’s not ‘fit and forget’ and, on many levels, it serves the same function as the name written down in a police officer’s notebook of old – it’s just far, far more efficient.

One other thought: the police itself note the importance of high-quality CCTV in securing prosecutions for retail crime, so they can’t be blamed for not prosecuting enough criminals if retailers don’t use technology that supports their work. Facial recognition, as part of a broader video surveillance system, is essential for retailers if the plague of crime is to be defeated. What do you think? Let me know in the poll I am running separately about this subject.