Government invests in facial recognition to clamp down on retail crime

The government is investing in facial recognition technology as part of an effort to crackdown on serial or abusive shoplifters.


Over the next four years the police can take advantage of a £55.5m investment package to roll out the technology. This includes £4m for mobile units that can be deployed to high streets across the country with live facial recognition used in crowded areas to identify people wanted by the police, including repeat shoplifters.

According to the Home Office, the mobile units will take live footage of crowds in towns and on high streets, comparing images to specific people wanted by the police or banned from that location. Police in the area will then be alerted so they can track down these offenders.  

In a statement, prime minister Rishi Sunak said: “Since 2010, violent and neighbourhood crime in England and Wales has fallen dramatically… Yet 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 shopworkers, enough is enough.

“Our local shops are the lifeblood of our communities, and they must be free to trade without the threat of crime or abuse.”

The government is also stepping up action to clamp down on offenders who repeatedly target the country’s high streets, with serial offenders forced to wear tags to track their movements. 

Under an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill, if an offender is found guilty of assaulting staff three times, or is sentenced for shoplifting on three separate occasions, they should be made to wear a tag as part of any community order.

The measures are being introduced in parallel with the introduction of a new offence of assaulting a retail worker. According to the government, offenders could be sent to prison for up to six months, receive an unlimited fine and be banned from going back to the shop where they committed their crimes, with criminal behaviour orders barring them visiting specific premises. 

Breaching an order is also a criminal offence and carries a five-year maximum prison sentence. offenders could face a life sentence for the most serious cases of assault, such as causing grievous bodily harm with intent.

The Retail Crime Action Plan was announced in October 2023. Commenting on the proposal, Emmanuelle Andrews, Liberty policy and campaigns manager, said: "The expansion of facial recognition technology in supermarkets is a threat to our rights, targets people affected by poverty, and fails to address the root causes of shoplifting. 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. It has no place on our streets or in our shops.

"We urge retail bosses to respect their customers’ rights, reject this tech and push the government to support people who are struggling to survive with the cost-of-living crisis.”