Simon Mackenzie, a security guard at the QT Stores discount store on the outskirts of London, was suffocated. He followed the three thieves who took several packets of laundry detergent. Before the police arrived, he sat down at a table in the back room to do one important thing: capture the faces of the criminals.
On an old desktop computer, he took footage from security cameras, pausing to zoom in and isolate each thief’s photo. Later, he was connected to FaceWatch, a facial recognition program that his store uses to identify shoplifters. The next time those people walk into any store within a few kilometers where they are using the FaceWatch, the store staff will receive an alert.
„It’s like someone is saying to you, 'That person you recognized last week is back in,'” Mackenzie explained.
Police use of facial recognition technology has been closely scrutinized in recent years, but its use by private companies has received less attention. Now, as technology improves and its cost decreases, the systems are used more and more in everyday life. No longer the province of government agencies, facial recognition is increasingly being used to identify thieves, problem customers and criminals.
Facewatch, a British company, is used by retailers across the country frustrated by common crimes. For £250 (about $320) a month, Facewatch gives you access to a personalized watch list that nearby shops share with each other. If FaceWatch detects a previously verified face, an alert is sent to a cell phone in the store, where employees decide whether to keep a close eye on the person or ask them to leave.
Mackenzie says she adds a new face or two every week, mostly people stealing diapers, groceries, pet supplies and other low-cost items. He says the financial problems of these people make him sympathetic, but the number of robberies is too much to control and facial recognition is necessary. Typically, at least once a day, FaceWatch will notify you that someone from the watch list has entered the store.
Facial recognition technology is on the rise as the West grapples with advances in artificial intelligence. The European Union is developing rules banning many uses of facial recognition, while New York Mayor Eric Adams encouraged retailers to try the technology to fight crime. MSG Entertainment, which owns Madison Square Garden and Radio City Music Hall, used automatic facial recognition to block access to lawyers suing the company.
Among democracies, the UK is leading the way in the use of real-time facial recognition, with courts and regulators approving its use. Police in London and Cardiff are testing the technology to identify wanted criminals as they walk down the street. It was used to scan the crowd in May Coronation of King Carlos III.
However, its use by retailers has attracted criticism as an inequitable solution to petty crime. There is no way for people to know or appeal that they are on the watch list. In a court complaint last year, civil society group Big Brother Watch called it „extremely Orwellian”.
Fraser Sampson, Britain’s biometrics and video surveillance commissioner, who advises the British government on policy, said there was „anxiety and reluctance” over facial recognition technology due to privacy concerns and algorithms that have performed poorly in the past.
„But I think in terms of speed, scale, accuracy and cost, facial recognition technology, in some areas, will really be a game changer,” he said. „That means their arrival and deployment is largely inevitable. It’s just a matter of when.”
’Can’t wait for 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 cellar-like interior and pickpockets.
At the time, Gordon hired software developers to create an online tool to share security camera footage with authorities, hoping it would save police time reporting incidents and lead to more arrests.
Interest was limited, but it fueled Gordon’s fascination with security technology, which kept him abreast of advances in facial recognition and came up with the idea of creating a watch list that retailers could share and contribute to. It’s similar to the photos of shoplifters kept at the cash register, but powered by a crowdsourced database to identify fraudsters in real-time.
In 2018, Gordon considered the technology ready for commercial use.
„You have to help yourself,” he commented. „You can’t wait for the police to come.”
FaceWatch, which licenses facial recognition software made by Real Networks and Amazon, is currently available in nearly 400 stores across the UK. Trained with millions of photos and videos, these systems read the biometric information of a person’s face when they walk into a store and match it to a database of tagged people.
FaceWatch’s watch list continues to grow as stores upload photos of shoplifters and troubled customers. Once inducted, one remains in it for one year before being removed.
„Mistakes are rare, but they happen”
Every time FaceWatch’s system detects a thief, a notification is sent to the person who passed a test saying „Super Recognizer”. Within seconds, Super Authenticator must confirm a match against the FaceWatch database before an alert is sent.
But even though the company has developed policies to prevent misidentification and other errors, mistakes happen.
In October, a woman buying milk at a supermarket in Bristol, England, was confronted by a clerk and ordered to leave. They said Facewatch had flagged her as a banned thief.
The woman, who asked not to be named for privacy reasons, said her story was corroborated by her lawyer and material provided by FaceWatch, which she said must be false. When he contacted FaceWatch a few days later, the company apologized, saying it was an identity mistake.
After the woman threatened legal action, Facewatch dug up her posts. The woman was put on the watch list for an incident 10 months ago in which she was found to have stolen £20 worth of goods (about $25). According to FaceWatch, the system „worked perfectly”.
But even if technology has correctly identified women, it has left little room for human choice. Neither Facewatch nor the store where the incident happened contacted her to let her know she was on the watch list and ask what happened.
The woman said she had no recollection of the incident and had never shoplifted. He clarified that perhaps the debit card at the ATM had been withdrawn without realizing that the payment was not made properly.
Madeleine Stone, legal and policy officer at Big Brother Watch, noted that FaceWatch „normalises airport-style security checks for everyday activities like buying a liter of milk”.
Gordon declined to comment on the Bristol incident.
In general, he said, „mistakes are rare, but they do happen.” And he added: „If that happens, we acknowledge our mistake, apologize, delete any relevant data to prevent it from happening again, and offer proportionate compensation.”
Approved by the Privacy Department
Civil rights groups have raised concerns about FaceWatch, suggesting its deployment to prevent petty crime is illegal under UK privacy law, which requires biometric technologies to be in the „substantial public interest”.
The UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office, the UK’s privacy regulator, conducted a year-long investigation into Facewatch. The Office ended the FaceWatch system in March permitted by lawBut only after the company introduced changes in its operations.
Stephen Bonner, deputy commissioner of the Office for Regulatory Oversight, said the investigation prompted Facewatch to change its policies: From now on it will put up more signs in stores, share information only about serious and violent criminals among them, and send repeated alerts. Criminals. This means no one will be put on a watch list for a minor infraction, as was the case with the Bristol woman.
„This reduces the amount of personal data held, reduces the chances of individuals being unfairly placed on this type of list, and increases the likelihood that it will be accurate,” Bonner said. The technology, he said, is „no different than having really good security guards.”
Liam Ardern, operations manager at Laurence Hunt, which owns 23 Spar convenience stores using FaceWatch, estimates the technology has saved the company more than £50,000 since 2020.
Ardern said the privacy risks of facial recognition have been overstated. The only example of mistaken identity is when a person was mistaken for his identical twin and shoplifted. Critics overlook the fact that stores like his operate on thin profit margins, he said.
„It’s easy for them to say, 'No, it’s against human rights,'” Ardern said, adding that if theft doesn’t decrease, her stores will have to raise prices or cut staff.
Adam Satariano is a technology reporter based in Europe, where his work focuses on digital politics and the intersection of technology and international affairs. @Sadariano
Kashmir Hill is a New York-based technology reporter. He writes about the unexpected and sometimes frightening ways technology is changing our lives, especially when it comes to our privacy. @cashhill