Your Face. Keep It Your Own.

Several of the UK’s supermarkets are introducing age verification surveillance systems for alcohol purchases. It is alluring.

Naturally, they are using biometrics and are excited at the prospect of automating the approvals process thereby reducing their floor headcount.

Despite their excitement, this might not be such a good idea. Here’s some immediate yet not exhaustive thoughts:

1. A responsible society might want to bring friction in the purchase of alcohol. Alcohol consumption is responsible for many cognitive illnesses, liver damage and other diseases. It might be a better idea not to use technology to make alcohol purchase too easy. Instant alcohol purchase facilitated by technology is like instant high APR 'shark loans' - instant approval, no friction for loans which drown people in very expensive debt. In 2019, there were around 200,000 people attempting to commit suicide or committed suicide due to their high level of debt.

2. Age verification surveillance for the purchase of alcohol is about surveillance of the majority in order to police a minority. Do we want that ?

3. As biometric data is unique to you, its theft is a serious cause for concern. Unlike changing a password, you can’t readily change your biometrics without significant plastic surgery i.e. surgery that changes your facial geometry. As biometrics can be used to access sensitive data like your bank account or your smart phone, it is paramount to protect it from theft. Assume no trust when shops ask for your consent. By implication, it is better to think carefully when consenting to the collection of your biometrics unless absolutely necessary i.e. passport control.

4. The biometrics of all alcohol buyers, irrespective of age, will be recorded. Assume it will be stored and categorised. The accuracy of this categorisation presents its own host of issues, but let's put that concern aside for now. It is also safe to assume that your Board of Directors will eventually be persuaded to monetise this data and sell it to insurance companies together with your matching payment details. These data points, when triangulated, will enable insurance companies to identify you and predict your cognitive decline and heart failure, amongst other diseases, on the assumption that you'll be drinking the alcohol that you are purchasing. Your history of alcohol purchase will impact your premium irrespective if at some point in the future you decide to stop drinking alcohol altogether. Unfortunately, this won’t count because there is no data for non-existent events i.e. you not drinking alcohol. You’ll still be recorded as an alcohol buyer based on your past purchases.

All things considered, here is my question to the heads of innovation at Asda, Aldi, Co-op and Morrisons and their boards of directors: this is how you'll most likely fail your social contract and eventually break the trust of your customers. You are transforming your shops in surveillance institutions invading people's lives for your convenience. Mindless innovation for the sake of it will only fail your innovation strategy, ESG+Technology agenda and business growth. Mindless innovation is a waste of resources. Do you really want to be leading with that? Link

Copyright Clara Durodie, 2022

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