Supermarkets can use robots to estimate shoppers’ ages when purchasing alcohol

Alcohol supermarkets - ADAM VAUGHAN/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Alcohol supermarkets – ADAM VAUGHAN/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Supermarkets can use robots to estimate the age of shoppers so they can buy alcohol without identity checks under new laws.

The Home Office has successfully trialled AI technology that can accurately predict the age of shoppers by using a camera to scan their faces at the checkout.

Tesco, Asda, Morrisons and Co-op participated in trials with facial technology firm Yoti, in which anyone judged to be over 25 was allowed to continue drinking alcohol without further control.

Those judged to be under 25 were required to go through the traditional age verification by presenting an identity document such as a passport or driver’s license.

According to trial results, no underage customers purchased age-restricted products while using age-verification technology, and supermarkets said they would support a change in the law. Currently, the law requires a person to monitor and approve the sale of age-restricted products such as alcohol and cigarettes.

The Home Office acknowledged that the Licensing Act 2003 could hinder or even prohibit innovative approaches or technological advances to improve the way alcohol is sold and regulated.

The trials were designed to explore alternative methods of controlling sale under “limited-term, controlled conditions, with the approval of government and regulatory authorities.”

It has also witnessed the trials of digital ID cards for young people to verify their age to go to clubs, bars and nightclubs.

A trial that lasted more than five months saw club members use digital IDs to verify their age at a venue in Camberley, Surrey. Nine out of 10 people supported the technology developed by 1account, which reduced the average time taken to age check at the door from 14.8 seconds to 4.7 seconds.

Privacy campaigners warn of ‘surveillance situation’

Clubbers scanned a legitimate photo ID, usually a driver’s license or passport, whose authenticity is automatically checked. A selfie was then compared to a photo of the identity document to provide a match. If he meets the strict guidelines, the user is given their own digital ID.

At the venue, guests held their phones to a QR reader. The app scanned the code and indicated whether the person was verified on the smartphone screen, along with a time and date stamp to block any attempts to take a screenshot.

Supporters of the technology claim that no personal information is stored by third parties and that images taken in the vaults are destroyed within seconds.

However, privacy campaigners have warned of the backdoor promotion of ID cards. Silkie Carlo, director of Big Brother Watch, said: “These digital identity and facial recognition trials are part of the growing creep towards a high-tech surveillance situation where biometric identity checks are a part of everyday life.

“It is important that identification requirements are proportionate, respectful of privacy, and always have a non-digital alternative. The government should encourage people, especially young people, to protect their biometric data from giving it to companies for day-to-day transactions.

“Such schemes run the risk of causing digital ID cards to be brought in through the backdoor.”

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