Home Bargains shopper banned after facial-recognition error labels her a thief

A general view of a Home Bargains store
-Credit: (Image: Hull Daily Mail)

A woman was left in floods of tears after she was mistakenly branded as a thief. The shopper claims that the mistake was made after she entered a Home Bargains store.

Facewatch - a system that scans customers' faces and then checks them against a database of criminal suspects - flagged her to staff. A employee at the shop searched her bag before she was led out and banned from all stores using the technology, the woman claims.

The system is used by companies including Budgens, Sports Direct, Southern Co-Op and Costcutter. The woman, who wanted to remain anonymous, said the company wrote to her admitting it had made an error.

READ MORE: Win a £200 Wickes voucher to celebrate the launch of Kimberley Walsh's new paint

Get breaking news on BirminghamLive WhatsApp

Speaking to the BBC she said: "Within less than a minute, I'm approached by a store worker who comes up to me and says, 'You're a thief, you need to leave the store'. I was just crying and crying the entire journey home… I thought, 'Oh, will my life be the same? I'm going to be looked at as a shoplifter when I've never stolen'."

The Metropolitan Police described facial recognition technology as a "vital tool" for policing and credited it with securing numerous arrests, The Mirror reports. Lindsey Chiswick, director of intelligence, previously said: "From a policing perspective, facial recognition is absolutely game-changing.

"We've been using it for a while in the post-incidence sense, but it's only recently in the last year or so that the algorithms have really come along and it's really accurate now. We can use it to point our resource at the most wanted, who have committed the most prolific offending and that ability to prioritise is really key at a time when our resources are spread quite thinly."

The biometric tool calculates the individual measurements of people's faces instead of taking into account characteristics such as whether a person is male or female or what race they are.

It then creates a template, comparing this to the same biometric template that was created in the custody image database when the person was arrested in the past. Within one minute from the image being inputted into the system, the technology will generate a match report for a police officer to look at manually before determining whether to make an arrest.

Images can come from CCTV stills or smartphone footage. The technology can find an accurate match from a grainy image where the person pictured was wearing a mask, it is claimed.

Ms Chiswick continued: "If we didn’t have this, the alternative would be an individual sitting and manually looking and comparing that picture with the other ones, which could take weeks or months."

Home Bargains did not comment on the story. Nick Fisher, the CEO of Facewatch, said: "Shoplifting has soared to unprecedented levels, with losses to retailers doubling to £1.8billion. However, it's the vulnerable shop staff that routinely and daily face the brunt of this.

"The surge in violence and abuse against front line staff is up from almost 870 cases per day to a staggering, 1,300 with around 30% of these incidents involving a weapon such as a knife or hammer. Facewatch will proudly continue to champion these innocent front line retail staff, in businesses using our service which is currently preventing up to 12,000 crimes per month nationwide."