Barred From Grocery Stores by Facial Recognition (2023)

Barred From Grocery Stores by Facial Recognition (1)

British merchants are increasingly using the technology to combat shoplifting, raising questions about its spread as artificial intelligence rapidly improves it.

A facial recognition system alerts Simon Mackenzie, a QD Stores security guard near London, when someone on a shoplifting watchlist has entered.Credit...Suzie Howell for The New York Times

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By Adam Satariano and Kashmir Hill

Adam Satariano reported from London, and Kashmir Hill from New York.

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.

Facewatch, a British company, is used by retailers across the country frustrated by petty crime. For as little as 250 pounds a month, or roughly $320, Facewatch offers access to a customized watchlist that stores near one another share. When Facewatch spots a flagged face, an alert is sent to a smartphone at the shop, where employees decide whether to keep a close eye on the person or ask the person to leave.

Mr. Mackenzie adds one or twonew faces every week, he said, mainly people who steal diapers, groceries, pet supplies and other low-cost goods. He said their economic hardship made him sympathetic, but that the number of thefts had gotten so out of hand that facial recognition was needed.Usually at least once a day, Facewatch alerts him that somebody on the watchlisthas entered the store.


Barred From Grocery Stores by Facial Recognition (4)


Facial recognition technology is proliferating as Western countries grapple withadvances brought on by artificial intelligence. The European Union is drafting rules that would ban many of facial recognition’suses, while Eric Adams, the mayor of New York City, has encouraged retailers to try the technology to fight crime. MSG Entertainment, the owner of Madison Square Garden and Radio City Music Hall, has used automated facial recognition to refuse entry to lawyers whose firms have sued the company.

Among democratic nations, Britain is at the forefront of using live facial recognition, with courts and regulators signing off on its use. The police in London and Cardiff are experimenting with the technology to identify wanted criminals as they walk down the street. In May, it was used to scan the crowds at the coronation of King Charles III.

But the use by retailers has drawn criticism as a disproportionate solution for minor crimes. Individuals have little way of knowing they are on the watchlist or how to appeal. In a legal complaint last year, Big Brother Watch, a civil society group, called it “Orwellian in the extreme.”

Fraser Sampson, Britain’s biometrics and surveillance camera commissioner, who advises the government on policy, said there was “a nervousness and a hesitancy” around facial recognition technology because of privacy concerns and poorly performing algorithms in the past.

“But I think in terms of speed, scale, accuracy and cost, facial recognition technology can in some areas, you know, literally be a game changer,” he said. “That means its arrival and deployment is probably inevitable. It’s just a case of when.”

‘You can’t expect the police to come’


Facewatch was founded in 2010 by Simon Gordon, the owner of a popular 19th-century wine bar in central London known for its cellarlike interior and popularity among pickpockets.

At the time, Mr. Gordon hired software developers to create an online tool to share security camera footage with the authorities, hoping it would save the police time filing incident reports and result in more arrests.

There was limited interest, but Mr. Gordon’s fascination with security technology was piqued. He followed facial recognition developments and had the idea for a watchlist that retailers could share and contribute to. It was like the photos of shoplifters that stores keep next to the register, but supercharged into a collective database to identify bad guys in real time.

By 2018, Mr. Gordon felt the technology was readyfor commercial use.

“You’ve got to help yourself,” he said in an interview. “You can’t expect the police to come.”

Facewatch, which licenses facial recognition software made by Real Networks and Amazon, is now inside nearly 400 stores across Britain. Trained on millions of pictures and videos, the systems read the biometric information of a face as the person walks into a shop and check it against a database of flagged people.

Facewatch’s watchlist is constantly growing as stores upload photos of shoplifters and problematic customers. Once added, a person remains there for a year before being deleted.

‘Mistakes are rare but do happen’

Every time Facewatch’s system identifies a shoplifter, a notification goes to a person who passed a test to be a “super recognizer” — someone with a special talent for remembering faces. Within seconds, the super recognizer must confirmthe match against the Facewatch database before an alert is sent.


But while the company has created policies to prevent misidentification and other errors, mistakes happen.

In October, a woman buying milk in a supermarket in Bristol, England, was confronted by an employee and ordered to leave. She was told that Facewatch had flagged her as a barred shoplifter.

The woman, who asked that her name be withheld because of privacy concerns and whose story was corroborated by materials provided by her lawyer and Facewatch, said there must have been a mistake. When she contacted Facewatch a few days later, the company apologized, saying it was a case of mistaken identity.

After the woman threatened legal action, Facewatch dug into its records. It found that the woman had been added to the watchlist because of an incident 10 months earlier involving £20 of merchandise, about $25. The system “worked perfectly,” Facewatch said.

But while the technology had correctly identified the woman, it did not leave much room for human discretion. Neither Facewatch nor the store where the incident occurred contacted her to let her know that she was on the watchlist and to ask what had happened.

The woman said she did not recall the incident and had never shoplifted. She said she may have walked out after not realizing that her debit card payment failed to go through at a self-checkout kiosk.

Madeleine Stone, the legal and policy officer for Big Brother Watch, said Facewatch was “normalizing airport-style security checks for everyday activities like buying a pint of milk.”

Mr. Gordon declined to comment on the incident in Bristol.

In general, he said, “mistakes are rare but do happen.” He added, “If this occurs, we acknowledge our mistake, apologize, delete any relevant data to prevent reoccurrence and offer proportionate compensation.”

Approved by the privacy office


Civil liberties groups have raised concerns about Facewatch and suggested that its deployment to prevent petty crime might be illegal under British privacy law, which requires that biometric technologies have a “substantial public interest.”

The U.K. Information Commissioner’s Office, the privacy regulator, conducted a yearlong investigation into Facewatch. The office concluded in March that Facewatch’s system was permissible under the law, but only after the company made changes to how it operated.

Stephen Bonner, the office’s deputy commissioner for regulatory supervision, said in an interview that an investigation had led Facewatch to change its policies: It would put more signage in stores, share among stores only information about serious and violent offenders and send out alerts only about repeat offenders. That means people will not be put on the watchlist after a single minor offense, as happened to the woman in Bristol.

“That reduces the amount of personal data that’s held, reduces the chances of individuals being unfairly added to this kind of list and makes it more likely to be accurate,” Mr. Bonner said. The technology, he said, is “not dissimilar to having just very good security guards.”

Liam Ardern, the operations manager for Lawrence Hunt, which owns 23 Spar convenience stores that use Facewatch, estimates the technology has saved the company more than £50,000 since 2020.

He called the privacy risks of facial recognition overblown. The only example of misidentification that he recalled was when a man was confused for his identical twin, who had shoplifted. Critics overlook that stores like his operate on thin profit margins, he said.

“It’s easy for them to say, ‘No, it’s against human rights,’” Mr. Ardern said. If shoplifting isn’t reduced, he said, his shops will have to raise prices or cut staff.

Adam Satariano is a technology correspondent based in Europe, where his work focuses on digital policy and the intersection of technology and world affairs. @satariano

Kashmir Hill is a tech reporter based in New York. She writes about the unexpected and sometimes ominous ways technology is changing our lives, particularly when it comes to our privacy. @kashhill


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How does facial recognition work in supermarkets? ›

The biometric cameras work by scanning the faces of shoppers so they can be checked against a database of suspected criminals. But they have been branded 'Orwellian' and 'unlawful' by critics, who claim that staff could add people to a secret 'blacklist' without them knowing.

Should stores use facial recognition shoplifting? ›

How Can Facial Recognition Stop Shoplifting in Retail? Facial recognition is the only way to prevent shoplifting before it actually happens. It is crucial to prevent theft, as most violent retail altercations happen after somebody has been caught in the act.

Do they have facial recognition at Walmart? ›

In 2021, The Verge reported that Walmart had employed facial recognition software and a special AI to detect unscanned items in the self-checkout lane.

What department stores use facial recognition? ›

According to the advocacy campaign's website, Macy's, Apple, Lowe's, Albertsons, Ace Hardware, and H-E-B grocery are six retailers that use the technology.

How does facial recognition work for shoplifting? ›

Facial recognition gives retailers a better chance of catching someone shoplifting by being able to recognize and record who enters and leaves the store chronologically.

What does facial recognition look for? ›

It works by identifying and measuring facial features in an image. Facial recognition can identify human faces in images or videos, determine if the face in two images belongs to the same person, or search for a face among a large collection of existing images.

Why are employees not allowed to stop shoplifters? ›

A representative for a food worker union in Washington said most of the employees they represent are told to not stop shoplifters. The reason is simple, there's the chance of injury to the employee, the thief, and other shoppers. That can also lead to lawsuits.

How do stores track shoplifters? ›

Most stores these days have surveillance cameras to track and record the behavior of shoplifters. Shoplifters don't know if someone is watching from a distance possibly using multiple cameras, high-powered binoculars, and recording their criminal acts.

Why does target not stop shoplifters? ›

Target's security camera system is known for being extremely high quality. In other words, there's not much of a chance that any shoplifters will get off due to being unrecognizable if they're caught on one of Target's cameras.

Does Home Depot have face recognition? ›

Others, like Target and Home Depot, have tested facial recognition in the past, but now say they don't use it. Retailers are also using other types of video technology.

Does Lowes use facial recognition? ›

Apple, Macy's, Albertsons, Lowes and Ace Hardware all use facial recognition software in their stores.

Does Kohl's have facial recognition? ›

Kohl's is also able to match up the biometric data it collects from its customers — using software provided by Clearview AI — with billions of facial scans stored in Clearview AI's “massive facial recognition database,” the Kohl's class action alleges.

Does Walgreens use facial recognition? ›

This was his creative solution, one people are likely to see more and more. Did You Know? The company most commonly associated with facial recognition advertising is Walgreens. As of fall 2021, 750 Walgreens locations – mostly in the Chicago area – were home to 10,000 cooler doors with facial recognition ads.

Is facial recognition banned in the US? ›

Roughly two dozen facial-recognition bans of various types have been enacted in communities and a few states across the United States since 2019.

Where is facial recognition illegal? ›

1. San Francisco, Calif. San Francisco was the first major city to ban police use of facial recognition back in 2019.

Does every shoplifter get caught? ›

Shoplifters are caught once out of every 48 times they steal — and, when they are caught, they are arrested 50% of the time.

How do shoplifters get caught after the fact? ›

Even if you successfully shoplift and exit the store without being caught, you can still be arrested. When there is missing inventory or if something distinctive is gone from the shelves, businesses may review security footage.

Does Macy's use facial recognition? ›

Dozens of large retailers, including Macy's and Bloomingdale's, are using facial recognition technology to identify people, license plates and other information so that store security can be alerted about potential crime threats.

Can you trick facial recognition? ›

​Confusing the facial recognition by throwing extra infrared light. Since most facial recognition use infrared imaging to collect your facial features, it is possible to confuse it by throwing extra infrared light on the face which is invisible to the naked eye.

What states are using facial recognition? ›

Currently, there are three U.S. states with laws specific to biometric privacy—Illinois, Texas, and Washington. All three make reference explicitly or implicitly to facial data. These laws take two general approaches to defining what data is covered.

Does facial recognition work with eyes closed? ›

The simple answer is that face recognition can work with eyes closed, and advanced face recognition systems such as SkyBiometry can even detect whether a person's eyes are open or closed.

Why are stores allowing people to steal? ›

Because state law holds that stealing merchandise worth $950 or less is just a misdemeanor, which means that law enforcement probably won't bother to investigate, and if they do, prosecutors will let it go. Why won't store employees do anything about this theft? Because they don't want to take the risk.

Can another customer stop a shoplifter? ›

Keep in mind that you cannot detain someone whom you think has shoplifted, you must visually see them hide the merchandise on their self or in their belongings before you can accuse them (the person must attempt to leave without paying).

Should you confront a shoplifter? ›

Confront them – If you decide to confront the suspected shoplifter, approach them when they have exited the premises. According to security expert Chris E McGoey, it's best to have additional personnel with you when you approach the shoplifter. “A good rule is to outnumber the suspected shoplifter by a least one.

How often do most shoplifters report being caught? ›

A good moment to stop shoplifters is as they leave the department or the store. However, only 5 to 10 percent of shoplifters are caught.

Can Walmart Loss Prevention touch you? ›

Shoplifting at Walmart

When you are caught, you will be approached by Loss Prevention Agents. They are not allowed to touch you or prevent you from leaving the store. They are also not allowed to chase you. However, they are told to call the police.

Can I get caught for something I shoplifted 3 weeks ago? ›

Yes, you can get caught for something you shoplifted 3 weeks ago. Depending on the store's security measures and surveillance systems, it is possible that they have footage of your crime or other evidence that could lead to your identification.

Will Target come after you for stealing? ›

Can You Get Caught Stealing After You Leave Target? Yes, but generally Target security will stop you and take back the merchandise right away. The store is interested in getting the items back and putting them back of the shelves for sale.

Does Big 5 have a no Chase policy? ›

We have a strict "no chase" policy. We do, however, "follow from a safe distance while maintaining observation and relay that information to police dispatch".

Does Walmart wait to prosecute shoplifters? ›

Although anti-theft practices and policies can vary between stores, Walmart will often call the cops for shoplifting offenses. If you are caught shoplifting from a Walmart, a loss prevention officer may reasonably detain you at the store until the police arrive.

Does Kroger use facial recognition? ›

While there have been reports in the past of Walmart using facial recognition, a representative confirmed with Fight for the Future that they don't use facial recognition in any form in their stores. Kroger replied to an activist tweet saying the company doesn't use facial recognition in its stores.

Do stores use face recognition? ›

Typically, a store using facial recognition technology isn't trying to identify every customer who walks through the door but rather is looking for faces that have been put on a watch list, such as previous shoplifters.

Do they watch cameras at Home Depot? ›

Each Home Depot location is slated to have cameras monitoring checkouts, receiving docks, store aisles, parking lots, and other areas of operation. Today, The Home Depot can monitor store activity from virtually anywhere on its IT network.

Do banks use facial recognition? ›

Combining sophisticated facial recognition and document authentication technologies, banks can validate customers' vital information and verify their true identities remotely.

Does Albertsons use facial recognition? ›

A handful of popular stores, including the grocery chain Albertsons and Macy's, are already using facial recognition, according to Fight for the Future's database.

What do companies do with facial recognition? ›

Track visitors and employees

On large sites, both employees and visitors are likely to explore their surroundings and, potentially, get lost. Facial recognition software helps to identify if anyone is in an area they shouldn't be and adds another layer of security to the building.

Does Target have facial recognition? ›

Target's cameras use top-of-the-line, in-store facial recognition technology paired with image analytics which allow staff to keep a close eye on suspicious customers. The images are also recorded outside the store and in its parking lots.

Does CVS have face recognition? ›

Walmart, Kroger, Home Depot, Target, Costco, CVS, Dollar Tree, and Verizon told Fight for the Future that they do not use facial recognition and do not plan on using it in the future.

Does Amazon go use facial recognition? ›

We do not use facial recognition technology in any of our stores, and claims made otherwise are false," the spokesperson said over emai. "Amazon One, our contactless, palm-based identity and payment service, is one of the entry options offered at select Amazon Go stores along with credit card and the Amazon app.

Does Sephora have facial recognition? ›

Bringing virtual reality technology to the beauty industry, Sephora's makeup app uses facial recognition to empower customers to try on products anywhere.

Does passport office use facial recognition? ›

Among other biometric measurements available, including iris scans and fingerprints, the agency selected facial recognition, which uses a computer algorithm to compare a picture taken in person at airport immigration or another border checkpoint to the traveler's passport picture or visa.

What cities in the US have banned facial recognition? ›

Earlier this week, Oakland, California became the third city to ban its government agencies from buying or using facial recognition technology for any purpose, following San Francisco and Sommerville, Massachusetts. Several states are also considering bills that would place moratoriums on the technology.

How many states have banned facial recognition? ›

From 2019 through 2021, about two dozen U.S. state or local governments passed laws restricting facial recognition. Studies had found the technology less effective in identifying Black people, and the anti-police Black Lives Matter protests gave the arguments momentum.

Why is facial recognition being banned? ›

In the hands of police and other government agencies, face recognition technology presents an inherent threat to our privacy, free expression, information security, and social justice. Our faces are unique identifiers that can't be left at home, or replaced like a stolen ID or compromised password.

Is facial recognition a violation of right to privacy? ›

The most significant privacy implication of FRT is the use of the technology to identify individuals without their consent. This includes using applications such as real-time public surveillance or an aggregation of databases that are not lawfully constructed.

Does Walmart use facial recognition? ›

In 2021, The Verge reported that Walmart had employed facial recognition software and a special AI to detect unscanned items in the self-checkout lane. As of 2019, this AI detection software is used in over 1,000 stores, per Insider.

Does facial recognition violate the 4th Amendment? ›

An analysis of the Katz and Kyllo cases demonstrates that the use of facial recognition technology in public places does not result in an unreasonable search, and hence does not violate the Fourth Amendment.

How do supermarkets detect shoplifting? ›

What triggers the alarm is the magnet. However, magnets are usually placed near the barcode so the cashier knows and can deactivate the magnet simply by scanning the item. That makes many people mistakenly think that unscanned barcodes set off alarms.

Does Aldi use facial recognition? ›

Aldi cameras don't currently use facial recognition or AI technology, said the spokesperson. It's unknown how customers feel about the change at Aldi but many have been vocal about the crackdown on retail theft.

Is the co op supermarket using facial recognition to track people? ›

Coda Story – Southern Co-op scans the faces of shoppers, holding their biometric data for years. Privacy and civil liberties group Big Brother Watch found that grocery stores, part of the Southern Co-op supermarket chain, are using facial recognition technology as a part of their in-store surveillance system.

Do grocery stores keep track of shoplifters? ›

Most stores these days have surveillance cameras to track and record the behavior of shoplifters. Shoplifters don't know if someone is watching from a distance possibly using multiple cameras, high-powered binoculars, and recording their criminal acts.

What time of day does most shoplifting occur? ›

Refrain from distractions like personal phone calls while on the sales floor. Provide adequate staff. The most vulnerable times for shoplifting occur early in the day, during lunch, and near closing, especially on Fridays or holidays.

What products use facial recognition? ›

5 most common uses of facial recognition
  • Smartphones and smart technology. ...
  • Social media and apps. ...
  • Policing and national security. ...
  • Retail and Advertising. ...
  • Border and Access Control.
Jan 13, 2022

Can my company use facial recognition? ›

Employees have the right to consent before using biometric data. An employer is also responsible for protecting each employee's confidentiality. It is also unlawful for employers to sell or transfer the employee's biometric data.

Does Kohl's use facial recognition? ›

Kohl's is also able to match up the biometric data it collects from its customers — using software provided by Clearview AI — with billions of facial scans stored in Clearview AI's “massive facial recognition database,” the Kohl's class action alleges.

Does Home Depot have facial recognition? ›

Others, like Target and Home Depot, have tested facial recognition in the past, but now say they don't use it. Retailers are also using other types of video technology.

Does Costco use facial recognition? ›

Stores like Walmart, Kroger, Home Depot, Target, Costco, CVS, Dollar Tree and Verizon have all committed to never using facial recognition in their stores in statements to Fight For the Future.

Do target cameras have facial recognition? ›

Target's cameras use top-of-the-line, in-store facial recognition technology paired with image analytics which allow staff to keep a close eye on suspicious customers.


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