picture of aldi supermarket sign

Supermarkets to use cameras to estimate customer age for age-restricted products

Several leading supermarkets are testing an automated age-verification system that use cameras to estimate a customer’s age. The idea behind using this technology is to reduce wait times for staff at self-checkouts when buying alcohol and other age-restricted products like energy drinks.

The trials are part of a more comprehensive Home Office testing program, exploring technologies that can assist with the sale of alcohol.

Co-op, Asda, and Morrisons are installing the camera system in some stores, while Aldi’s checkout-free store in London already uses the technology.

The system works by asking the customer to consent to the camera to capture their face and guess their age. The system is driven by an algorithm that has been trained by viewing a database of anonymous faces. Should the system estimate the customer is under 25, they will need to show ID to a staff member to proceed with the sale.

“Not facial recognition technology”

Yoti, the company providing the system to the supermarkets, stresses that this isn’t facial recognition technology. The key difference is that this system doesn’t match customers’ faces to those on a database but looks at each face individually to make a decision. In this case, the system doesn’t retain any images after estimating the customer’s age.

Yoti’s chief executive, Robin Tombs, told the BBC, “Waiting for age approval at the self-checkout is sometimes frustrating for shoppers.

“Our age-verification solutions are helping retailers like Asda meet the requirements of regulators worldwide and keep pace with consumer demands for fast and convenient services, while preserving people’s privacy.”

But privacy concerns remain

Yoti’s algorithm was tested on more than 125,000 faces of individuals aged six to 60. On average, the system guessed individuals’ ages to within 2.2 years. Notably, this measure improved to 1.5 years among 16 – 20-year-olds.

Geri Hebberd, Asda’s senior director of retail innovation, said the brand “looked forward to seeing what our customers think”.

She added: “We know how time pressed some of our customers are, so we always want to make things quicker and easier for them when they shop with us.”

Despite the convenience factor, concerns about this type of technology remain. Only last year, several schools quickly ended their use of facial recognition technology once the Information Commissioner’s Office started investigating. At the same time, Facebook also pulled the plug on its facial recognition technology in late 2021.

Privacy concerns about the use of similar cameras in supermarkets are also nothing new. In 2020, 18 Co-op branches tested a facial recognition system that identified and alerted staff to customers with a record of “theft or anti-social behaviour.” Sainsbury’s tested a hidden artificial intelligence detector in the same year, which sent video footage to the in-store security team if a customer put an item in their pocket.

Image credit: jax10289 / Shutterstock.com

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