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Facial recognition tech roll-out is ‘Orwellian’, claim civil liberties campaigners

Author : Sophia Bell, Group Editor, DPA

11 April 2024

The UK Government has announced plans to tackle shoplifting through a £55m investment in facial recognition technology.

Image: Big Brother Watch
Image: Big Brother Watch

The investment forms part of a larger £230m commitment to enhancing police productivity through technology, announced as part of the latest spring budget. It will facilitate the deployment of facial recognition technology across high streets and towns throughout England and Wales.

£4m will be allocated to the introduction of mobile units equipped with live facial recognition (LFR) cameras. These units will be strategically positioned in crowded high streets and town centres, enabling law enforcement swiftly to identify individuals wanted by the police, particularly repeat offenders.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak emphasised the importance of safeguarding local businesses, labelling them the "lifeblood of our communities". 

The investment reflects a broader strategy to maintain public safety and uphold the law in the face of escalating retail crime rates.

According to statistics published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), shoplifting offences have surged to unprecedented levels, surpassing 400,000 in 2023 – almost 100,000 more than in the previous year. 

“I am sending a message to those criminals – whether they are serious organised criminal gangs, repeat offenders or opportunistic thieves – who think they can get away with stealing from these local businesses or abusing shop workers: enough is enough,” Sunak said.

Alongside increased surveillance capabilities, the Government announced tougher punishments for repeat and abusive shoplifters. These include electronically tagging serial offenders and electronic tagging of serial offenders and making abusing a retail worker a standalone criminal offence.

Under the new law, shoplifters could be sent to prison for up to six months and receive unlimited fines.

The move to protect shop workers from abuse has been met with praise from retailers such as Co-Op and John Lewis.
“I’m glad that after six years of hard campaigning, we have got to the point where this offence will become law,” commented Paul Gerrard, Campaigns And Public Affairs Director of Co-op.

However, the deployment of facial recognition has faced criticism from civil liberties campaigners who cite concerns over privacy rights and the disproportionate impact of surveillance measures on marginalised communities.

Emmanuelle Andrews, Policy and Campaigns Manager at Liberty, suggested that the Government should focus their attention on tackling the root cause of many instances of shoplifting: the cost-of-living crisis. 

Since the UK’s cost-of-living crisis kicked off in late 2021, there has been a surge of instances of people reportedly being forced to shoplift to meet their families’ basic needs, with essential items such as Calpol and baby formula being among the most frequently shoplifted items.

“Those in power should be working to ensure families can pay their rent and feed their children – not ramping up the use of oppressive policing tools like facial recognition,” Andrews said.

“Surveillance tech like facial recognition monitors all of us as we go about our daily lives – and has in particular been used to discriminate against minority groups, and particularly people of colour,” she said. “It has no place on our streets or in our shops.”

This statement was echoed by Big Brother Watch, who condemned the investment in facial recognition technology as an "abysmal waste of public money”. 

“Criminals should be brought to justice, but papering over the cracks of broken policing with Orwellian tech is not the solution,” said Silkie Carlo, Director of Civil Liberties.

“It is completely absurd to inflict mass surveillance on the general public under the premise of fighting theft whilst police are failing to even turn up to 40 percent of violent shoplifting incidents or to properly investigate many more serious crimes.

Carlo also raised concerns about the implications of mass surveillance on personal freedoms. “It’s an abysmal waste of public money on a dangerously authoritarian and inaccurate technology that neither the public nor parliament has ever voted on. 

“This will cost not only the public purse but the public’s privacy and civil liberties. Live facial recognition may be commonplace in China and Russia, but these Government plans put the UK completely out of sync with the rest of the democratic world.

“This Orwellian tech has no place in Britain.”

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