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AI face-scanning technology to be rolled out at supermarkets to check age of shoppers

Yoti age verification
The technology has already been integrated in some shops but has not yet been deployed because of UK licensing laws - YOTI

Artificial intelligence (AI) face-scanning technology that checks the age of shoppers buying alcohol is to be rolled out at supermarkets under government plans to replace the use of physical ID documents.

Chris Philp, the policing minister, announced on Wednesday that the Government is to consult on new laws that would allow supermarkets to use AI technology capable of accurately estimating the age of shoppers by using a camera to scan their face at the tills.

Tesco, Asda, Morrisons and Co-op have already successfully trialled the technology which allowed anyone that is estimated to be over 25 to buy their alcohol without further checks.

Those assessed to be under 25 had to go through the traditional confirmation of age by presenting an ID document such as a passport or driving licence.

‘Secure and appropriate’ use of technology

The technology could now be deployed nationwide by amending the current law which requires everyone to be physically observed and approved before they can buy age restricted items such as alcohol and cigarettes.

Mr Philp said the aim was for the “secure and appropriate” use of technology that could “improve the experience of consumers and retailers.”

“The current wording of the Act does not allow technology to play a part in the age verification process for alcohol sales. A person must make the decision on whether an individual is old enough to purchase alcohol,” he said.

“We are therefore consulting on whether to amend the Act so as to allow digital identities and technology to play a role in age-verification.”

The technology could ultimately replace ID cards. Officials believe it could help to prevent under 18s from buying alcohol and cut violence against shop workers, who blame ID checks for leading to abuse from young customers.

It could also save time on current ID checks that can cause disorderly queues, as well as enabling automated age verification for alcohol bought via click and collect and online.

‘Robust national standards for digital identities’

The technology has already been deployed by the Post Office, police, NHS, NSPCC and social media through Yoti, a company specialising in digital identity verification.

Yoti’s technology is already integrated into self-checkout systems that are used by major supermarket chains such as Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Morrisons but has not yet been deployed because of UK licensing laws.

Mr Philp said the change would require customers to be confident in the effectiveness of the technology. “The need for robust national standards for digital identities and technology remains paramount in order to provide confidence to retailers and consumers alike that they are fit for purpose,” he said.

“Any change would reflect the wider cross-government position on the use of digital identities and technology for the sale of age-restricted products and will only take effect once there are government approved national standards in place.”

He said the Government was also considering whether there should be age verification checks when alcohol bought online was delivered to a customer.

“Currently the Act only sets out a requirement to verify age at the point of sale or appropriation to a contract, not at the point of delivery,” he said.

“We are reviewing whether this is still right and whether there should additionally be checks at the point of delivery and/or service. We are consulting on whether to amend the Act so that it is explicit about when age verification must take place.”