‘Game-changing’ facial recognition tech to be used in crackdown on London shoplifting

19 October 2023, 00:01 | Updated: 19 October 2023, 11:29

The new facial recognition technology can match up CCTV footage with custody images
The new facial recognition technology can match up CCTV footage with custody images. Picture: Metropolitan Police

By Fraser Knight.

Facial recognition technology is going to be used to investigate and identify prolific criminals who target retail businesses in London, after an increase in attacks and shoplifting.

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The Metropolitan Police will use CCTV images, body worn and camera phone footage to match offenders with existing custody images, in a bid to speed up investigations.

The technology has been described as a game-changer and is said to be ‘essentially 100% accurate’.

A mini trial of the system has already provided leads for officers to track down 149 of the capital’s most common offenders.

Met Commissioner Sir Mark Rowley said: “It’s clear the majority [of people carrying out retail crimes] are career criminals involved in serious crime. This data and information helps us focus our efforts in an even more precise way than we originally anticipated.

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“Through this tactic we’re not only improving how we protect shops and support the business community, we’re stepping further forward in identifying and tracking down serious criminals and protecting all of London's communities.

“The scale of business crime in London is huge. To be successful we have to be precise in our approach and this is a really promising step forward.”

Lindsey Chiswick, director of intelligence at the Met Police, told LBC: “We’ve done independent testing of this system and it came back as being really, really accurate and the alternative to not using this technology is a human sitting there and manually having to look at every image which could take weeks or months.”

In a demonstration of the facial recognition technology, reporters were shown that probable matches to an image can be returned within 60 seconds.

And rather than looking at particular features of a person, it uses facial measurements.

However, some campaigners are concerned about the use of the technology being expanded.

Dr Matt Mahmoudi from Amnesty International told LBC he believes it is "incompatible with the right to equality and non-discrimination".

Mark Johnson, from the group Big Brother Watch, also said: “Surveillance technology used in the total absence of safeguards or even any kind of parliamentary scrutiny is not a substitute for a well-resourced police force."

He added: “We urgently need a democratic, lawful approach to the role of facial biometrics in Britain, and without this, police forces should not be using this Orwellian technology at all. Strict rules govern police use of DNA and fingerprints, yet police are writing their own rules on the use of our face prints.”

But the Met says rather than looking at particular features of a person, it uses facial measurements.

“It doesn’t see race or gender, it’s biometrically matching,” Ms Chiswick said.

12 retailers in London were last month asked to provide the Met with images of their 30 most prolific offenders to test whether facial recognition might be able to help investigations.

Of the 302 images put through the system, 149 of them returned matches with custody images already held by the force, showing they have previous convictions and are already known to police.

Police in London said they received around 50,000 reports of shoplifting last year, but concerns were raised that the figure could just be the tip of the iceberg - around 5% or 10% of what’s being committed.

LBC has previously revealed that some high streets have begun taking matters into their own hands when it comes to tackling theft, which figures suggest is costing retail businesses almost £1bn a year.

Private detectives have started patrolling areas and chasing down offenders, gathering evidence against them and even taking them to court.

One group doing that across London - TM-Eye - says it’s brought 1,500 private prosecutions against suspected criminals, in cases where the police were unable to investigate because of a lack of resources.

Shaun, who we spoke to while on shift in Romford, east London, said: “There are lots of people shop workers recognise as prolific shoplifters - probably about 30% of people we come across are repeat offenders and the rest are opportunists who travel into the area to commit these crimes.”

Met Police Commander Kyle Gordon, who is responsible for the policing of London’s business and retail community told LBC he expects using facial recognition will help increase arrest rates when it comes to reports of crimes being committed in shops.

“We’ve had a grown-up conversation with the business community, and they know we can’t attend every shoplifting report but what they are saying to us is that they think there are times where we can be more responsive to cases where it’s more prolific.

“It’s going to have a massive impact in that it allows us to start further upstream in terms of who we need to speak to and what we need to do - there are still all parts of the investigation that will need to be done though. It’s like getting a fingerprint or a name given to you that gives you a jump off point for the investigation.

“Using this technology is not just about shoplifting, it’s about violence against women and girls - 50% of retail staff are female - modern slavery, child exploitation and repeat offenders with addictive criminal attitudes.”

The Metropolitan Police says it plans to use facial recognition technology more widely across the city to help ‘reset the relationship’ with the business community and improve their response to reports of crimes committed in the retail space.