Police told to scan every CCTV image of shoplifters with facial recognition technology to crack down on theft epidemic

16 September 2023, 08:44 | Updated: 20 September 2023, 10:14

Police have been told to scan all CCTV images of shoplifting with facial recognition technology
Police have been told to scan all CCTV images of shoplifting with facial recognition technology. Picture: Alamy

By Will Taylor

Every CCTV image of shoplifters should be scanned with facial recognition technology, police have been told.

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Fears of an "epidemic" of thefts from stores has led to calls for action amid concerns about too many crimes going unpunished.

Just one in seven shoplifters were charged in the last year in England and Wales. Among those, 54% were closed after detectives failed to identify a suspect while other difficulties caused a further 20% of cases to collapse.

Shops are now turning to facial recognition technology to tackle the problem, having already taken drastic steps by locking away everyday goods in secure cases or putting dummy products on the shelves that have to be exchanged at the till for the real thing.

Read more: Police quiz man in Peckham after protest sparked as woman claims she was 'strangled' after being accused of shoplifting

Chris Philp, the policing minister, said: "I believe all police forces should have a zero-tolerance approach to shoplifting.

"That means actively patrolling in areas where it is a problem and it means always, always, retrieving CCTV and running it through the police national database to seek a facial recognition match.

"Perpetrators should always be pursued. If we don't do that there is a risk that it simply escalates out of control and an atmosphere of disorder develops."

Shoplifters should have their faces scanned in every instance, police said.
Shoplifters should have their faces scanned in every instance, police said. Picture: Alamy

Ten retailers are planning to bring in "Project Pegasus" - a system where they pay police to scan shoplifters' faces through the Police National Database, which uses facial recognition technology.

This could help forces crack down on shoplifting gangs. Tesco, Sainsbury's, Waitrose and the Co-op are among those taking part in the £600,000 scheme they will help fund.

It is hoped this will help forces with collecting evidence that could lead to charges and sort out differences between the police services when it comes to tackling the crime.

Read more: TikTok videos swap shoplifting tactics and explain how to avoid getting caught amid shelf theft epidemic fears

Just 4.5% of shoplifting cases pursued by Surrey Police led to charges, while 24% of Cumbria Police's ended up with a charge.

But groups including Liberty, the Prison Reform Trust and Big Brother Watch wrote to The Times on Saturday to oppose the move.

"The expansion of facial recognition technology in supermarkets poses a dangerous threat to privacy," they told the newspaper.

Tesco is among the supermarkets participating in Project Pegasus
Tesco is among the supermarkets participating in Project Pegasus. Picture: Alamy

Data shows shoplifting has risen in those stores by 41% in the first eight months of this year compared to the same period in 2022, with violence against staff rising by 25%.

John Lewis's chairwoman Sharon White has described shoplifting as an "epidemic".

The British Retail Consortium (BRC) said violence and abuse against staff has risen from 450 incidents a day in 2019/20 to more than 850 last year.

It has warned widespread shoplifting was contributing to a 27% rise in losses - about £1bn a year.

Police recorded more than 330,000 cases of shoplifting in the year to March - of which 48,000 led to charges - but the BRC estimates there have been at least eight million instances.

Police are being told to scan all shoplifting CCTV images
Police are being told to scan all shoplifting CCTV images. Picture: Alamy

High street stores are being forced to secure everyday items.

Basic items like washing powder are being locked up to stop them being swiped from shelves, while shoppers need to swap out "dummy" coffee tubs for a real product when they pay.

Shops are bringing in security guards, electronic barriers for self service checkouts and facial recognition systems to stop theft.

Iceland has resorted to putting laundry products into security cases in some stores.

Sainsbury's has caused controversy with some customers by installing barriers that force them to scan a receipt after going through self-service to deter people from walking out with stolen goods.

In Tesco, simple everyday products like mince or pies have a "security protected" label tagged on them, while sun cream has been put into secure boxes in some Co-op stores.