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Supermarkets in talks to trial age estimation technology for buying alcohol later this year

7 min read

The UK’s major supermarkets are in talks to trial age estimation technology as part of a Government programme starting later this year, the British company behind the software has confirmed.

Yoti, a digital identity platform used by the NHS, Post Office, Virgin Atlantic and the Jersey government, has developed age estimation technology it claims is the most accurate in the world.

The Home Office invited retailers, bars and restaurants to propose digital methods of checking customers’ ages while purchasing alcohol in a pilot scheme launched last month, in the hopes of starting in-store trials in the summer.

Facial analysis – which is not the same as facial recognition – is just one of the technologies retailers could adopt more widely to crack down on aggression and abuse directed at human staff, as refusing underage customers alcohol is an often-cited reason for threats and abuse, according to the British Retail Consortium.

Yoti is in talks with the UK’s top 10 largest retailers and a number of e-commerce and convenience stores about providing their software in self-checkouts for the ‘alcohol sandbox’ trials, which require applicants to work with their local licensing authorities to ensure the pilots are both safe and legal, according to John Abbott, the company’s chief business officer.

Yoti’s system allows customers to choose between using age estimation technology, proving their age via Yoti’s smartphone app or opting for a human assistant (Photo: Yoti)

While Mr Abbott would not be drawn on the exact participating retailers, Yoti is partners with NCR, an American company that manufactures self-checkouts used by Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Morrisons, among others.

When asked if Yoti planned for its technology to be trialled in the majority of the UK’s household supermarket names this year, he said he “wholeheartedly hoped that [would happen],” though pointed out it would depend on the retailer, police and the local authority.

How Yoti’s technology works

Customers buying alcohol in supermarkets using self-checkouts that support Yoti’s age estimation technology during the trials can consent to the camera embedded in the checkout analysing their face to confirm they’re over a certain age. While retailers can determine the age, the Retail of Alcohol Standards Group requires retailers to check whether customers appear 25 or over.

Yoti’s facial analysis system, which cannot link a face to an identity, uses an AI-powered algorithm trained to check the age of faces with an average accuracy of 2.2 years, rising to one and a half years among younger people aged 16 to 20.

If the customer agrees, the checkout will take a photo of their face. The software works to approximate their age and the image is automatically deleted. Yoti claims the only data shared with the retailer is the age check and that a human will never see the picture.

If the system determines the customer looks younger than the set age, they have the option to share their birth of date anonymously with the system via Yoti’s smartphone app by scanning a QR code on the terminal’s screen.

Alternatively, customers can wait for store approval from a human assistant. Yoti is hoping to provide extra staff when the trials go live “to support the customers in their journey”.

“We’re working full days on this at the moment and while I can’t say who’s going to go first, we’ve had some good conversations with our partners we’ve been working with over the past five years,” he told i.

A Sainsbury’s spokesperson confirmed that while the technology was something the company was looking at, “it’s a bit too early for us to say what our involvement might be”.

A spokesperson for Waitrose said: “We don’t have any immediate plans this year to introduce age verification technology but we are monitoring developments in the industry.”

Yoti held trials with two of the big four supermarkets (Asda, Tesco, Morrisons and Sainsburys) “behind closed doors” in 2017, and had a public pilot planned with a “leading UK retailer” for 2020 that was pushed back because of the pandemic. Similarly, a large-scale trial with a major US customer ran successfully until it was forced to shut because of the pandemic.

Privacy preservation

The Home Office pilots are a good opportunity for Yoti to showcase how facial analysis can be deployed in an ethical, fully-inclusive way that preserves privacy, Mr Abbott said. 

“Getting it wrong as a business in our industry is pretty terminal, so we’ve invested hugely in making this a government-grade service that prevents the unnecessary sharing of information and doesn’t create repositories of people’s age data,” he added.

Supermarkets in talks to trial age estimation technology for buying alcohol later this year
Yoti plans to have extra staff on hand to help customers during the trial (Photo: Yoti)

While the Home Office trials will require humans to check participants’ ages as usual in addition to the technology to abide by the current law, many retailers have been pushing for wider adoption of digital age verification systems for years, according to the British Retail Consortium (BRC), the trade association for all UK retailers. 

“The major advantage from a retailer’s point of view is that these kinds of systems lead to less aggression and abuse towards supermarket workers when underage people are refused alcohol,” a BRC spokesperson told i.  

“They feel it’s a machine saying ‘you can’t buy this’ rather than a shopworker. “We [the BRC] also think when shop staff are undertaking a legal obligation, they should have some extra protection. it seems unfair not to give them the fullest possible support to deter the issue of violence.” 
 
Every day more than 400 retail staff are attacked, threatened, or abused in their place of work, with challenging young people for ID a common reason for abuse. Two-thirds of retailers surveyed by the BRC in February said there had been an increase in the number of incidents of physical violence against staff during the current lockdown.  

“Retailers have been pushing for age verification technology for years because it’s helpful, cheaper and easier than a human checking a person’s age,” the spokesperson added. 

“These trials are toe-in-the-water stuff, there’s no guarantee that anything will be implemented, but what everyone’s after is a common standard that’s independently administered and that any technology company can build for, providing they meet the standard.”

Supermarket trials

Yoti’s age estimation and facial analysis technology is the most accurate Tony Allen, chair of the Expert Panel on Age Restrictions at the Office for Product Safety and Standards, which has partnered with the Home Office on the scheme, and chief executive of Age Check Certification Scheme, has seen. 

“The big retail companies are all looking at age verification technology very carefully,” he told i. “We’ve had a lot of discussions with them. You can expect that the top 10 supermarkets will run some sort of trial in their businesses – some of them may well run multiple trials of different technologies in different locations. 

“All these trials are about those businesses finding out how customers react, how customers react to things like having their face scanned – some may not want it, in which case supermarkets aren’t going to do things that their customers don’t like.” 

Supermarkets in talks to trial age estimation technology for buying alcohol later this year
If the system determines customers look younger than the designated age, they can prove it anonymously using the company’s app (Photo: Yoti)

Some retailers may have been reluctant to embrace age verification and facial analysis as quickly as some people in their organisation might have wanted them to because of concerns likening the software to controversial facial recognition, Mr Abbott said. 

“This isn’t because they didn’t understand how it works, but just they didn’t want to be sort of caught up in that sort of mismatch,” he explained. 

“We do invest a lot of time in differentiating between anonymous age estimation and facial recognition. I fully appreciate that for Joe Public that can be lost when you’re looking at someone’s face, so feedback and engaging with that is key. 

“We have a coined phrase that ‘Yoti always forgets a face’. This is not mass surveillance, there’s not van outside with a big spinning satellite on top. When we trialed in the US over four months, one person had a concern. 

“Among retailers, everyone really, really wants to be second. Once the first wave of retailers are up and running, I think there’ll be a lot more confidence in attempting to explain the difference [between facial analysis and recognition] without having to make showing your face a dirty word.” 

“The alcohol sandbox is not about trialling any sort of facial recognition technology,” Stuart Craig-Lau, Alcohol Policy Manager at the Home Office told i.

“This is about age estimation for alcohol sales, no other information about an individual will be available through use of this technology.”

“This sandbox provides an opportunity for industry standards approved by the Age Check Certification Service to be tested in a small, controlled environment as part of the development process before final approval is sought from the British Standards Institute.

“This will provide confidence that sufficient protections for personal information are in place when technology is used for age assurance purposes.”

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