Portsmouth - Southern Co-op store

Last week in Boots, where most manned pay points seem to have disappeared, a self-checkout screen greeted me with this terse message: ‘You are being recorded. We record video and audio in this store and pass any evidence on to the police.’

I promptly made a mental note to avoid shopping in Boots from now on. No ‘thank you for your custom’ here – just threats that are even less courteous in tone than Border Force instructions at passport control.

My next stop was a clinical, brutally lit new Co-op where staff had the harassed demeanour of workers with too much to do. There I was met by a similarly dystopian line of self-checkouts where you can see you are being captured on camera.

I asked the store manager about the purpose of this technology. “Walkaways,” he explained. I asked, so all your customers are treated as potential criminals? “That’s right,” he said, somewhat apologetically.

Ironically, retailers’ attempts to slash their wages bill by installing self-checkouts have simply enabled more shoplifting.

Now, in an escalation of Big Brother technology, I see Southern Co-op is operating live facial recognition cameras at 35 stores, in partnership with cloud-based concern Facewatch Limited.

From these images it compiles ‘blacklists’ to which any customer can be added if a member of staff ‘reasonably suspects’ them, unbeknown to the shopper in question.

Such profiling is notoriously unreliable. Freedom of information requests show 93% of the Met Police’s facial recognition alerts over recent years have wrongly flagged innocent people. And how can you challenge a biased or mistaken flagging if you don’t even know you’re listed?

How dare Southern Co-op, Facewatch, or any other private company, steal biometric data – information as sensitive as a fingerprint – from each and every customer entering a store?

Rightly, Big Brother Watch has submitted a legal complaint to data rights watchdog, the Information Commissioner: “We believe their use of this invasive technology is unlawful so we’re calling on the Commissioner to stop this Orwellian surveillance of innocent shoppers.”

‘Smile! You’re on camera?’ A scowl, more like.