Government invests £55m for Facial Recognition Tools in Shoplifting Crackdown

The UK government has announced a significant investment of more than £55 million to enhance facial recognition systems, including the deployment of mobile units equipped with live facial recognition technology on crowded high streets, as part of a renewed effort to tackle shoplifting.

This initiative comes alongside proposals for stricter punishments aimed at serial or abusive shoplifters in England and Wales. Under the proposed measures, offenders could face wearing a tag to prevent them from revisiting the scene of their crime, as well as potential imprisonment for up to six months and unlimited fines. These changes are expected to be introduced via an amendment to the criminal justice bill currently progressing through parliament, possibly as early as this summer.

The £55.5 million investment over the next four years will facilitate the deployment of mobile units capable of conducting live facial recognition scans in crowded areas to identify individuals wanted by the police, including repeat shoplifters. This investment follows the development of Project Pegasus, in which major UK retailers such as Marks & Spencer, Boots, and Primark utilise facial recognition technology to analyze CCTV images against police databases.

However, the government’s allocation of funds for facial recognition technology has sparked criticism from civil liberties advocates. Silkie Carlo, director of civil liberties at Big Brother Watch, described the investment as “an abysmal waste of public money” and raised concerns about mass surveillance infringing on citizens’ rights.

The funding for facial recognition tools will be drawn from a £240 million investment in police productivity over four years, as announced in the budget. Additionally, £4 million will be allocated for mobile units over the next year.

The announcement also marks a reversal for the government regarding the recognition of assaults on retail workers as a specific criminal offense. Previously, a Labour-backed amendment proposing such legislation was blocked, but now the government acknowledges the need for action amid rising incidents of retail crime.

Retailers have long advocated for measures to address escalating retail crime, with some reporting significant losses due to shoplifting incidents. The Co-op Group, for example, revealed losses of £70 million from shoplifting following a surge in retail crime last year.

Rishi Sunak said his government was backing a change in the law as “shoplifting and violence and abuse towards retail workers continues to rise”.

“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.”