Facial Recognition Spreads as Tool to Fight Shoplifting

Simon Mackenzie, a security officer at the discount retailer QD Stores outside London, was short of breath. He had just chased after three shoplifters who had taken off with several packages of laundry soap. Before the police arrived, he sat at a back-room desk to do something important: Capture the culprits’ faces.

On an aging desktop computer, he pulled up security camera footage, pausing to zoom in and save a photo of each thief. He then logged in to a facial recognition program, Facewatch, which his store uses to identify shoplifters. The next time those people enter any shop within a few miles that uses Facewatch, store staff will receive an alert.

“It’s like having somebody with you saying, ‘That person you bagged last week just came back in,’” Mr. Mackenzie said.

Use of facial recognition technology by the police has been heavily scrutinized in recent years, but its application by private businesses has received less attention. Now, as the technology improves and its cost falls, the systems are reaching further into people’s lives. No longer just the purview of government agencies, facial recognition is increasingly being deployed to identify shoplifters, problematic customers and legal adversaries.

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