THE company behind new facial recognition technology at a Stourbridge fuel filling station has defended its use in the fight against crime after a motorist captured on camera raised concerns.

The BP garage on the ring road, run by Sharma Garages, has undergone a makeover recently with new technology installed in the shop.

It came as a shock, however, to motorist Kevin Walker from Brierley Hill who told how new facial recognition technology appeared to flag him as a possible offender.

He told how he noticed an alarm going off as he walked into the store to buy fuel and as he approached the cashier he spotted his picture on a screen alongside a photo of a man resembling him.

He said a shop assistant asked if he was the person pictured in the second image which appeared with the words ‘anti-social behaviour’.

With a queue building, he recalled that he calmly answered ‘no’ and pointed to a prominent tattoo on his neck which the other image lacked.

He said he’d been “a bit dumbstruck” at the experience and contacted the shop manager afterwards.

Manager Balraj Kitnasamy was reportedly apologetic and offered him a free car wash for his trouble as he learned new facial recognition cameras had been installed to crackdown on crime, in particular thefts.

Stourbridge News: VARS Technology cameras in the store at the BP garage in StourbridgeVARS Technology cameras in the store at the BP garage in Stourbridge (Image: Bev Holder/Newsquest)

Mr Walker, a construction worker, said he wasn’t too offended or upset by the incident, but he wanted to highlight it to inform others and open conversations about whether the technology could potentially misidentify someone.

He said he was shocked that an image had popped up, which the technology listed as being around an 85 per cent match, but he admitted: “The guy looked an almost spit of me but he was missing a prominent tattoo.”

The image, it turned out, was of an engineer who had been programming the new equipment.

Sharma Garages confirmed the technology has been installed to combat the huge rise in retail theft and John Garnett, who runs VARS Technology Ltd - the Blackpool-based company behind the technology, has explained how it works.

He told the News: “VARS technology has been around for about five years and works very closely with petrol stations. Our system uses state-of-the-art ANPR (Automatic Number Plate Recognition) technology to detect number plates that drive into petrol forecourts. When a vehicle drives in that has previously been involved in an offence, such as driving off without paying, the system alerts the cashier and they refuse to serve them fuel. This system has single-handedly saved the forecourt industry over a million pounds last year alone in fuel theft, for the 1,200 petrol stations we operate in across the UK.

Stourbridge News: John Garnett, of VARS Technology LtdJohn Garnett, of VARS Technology Ltd (Image: Bev Holder / Newsquest)

“The problem forecourts face is that police don’t have the resources to deal with petty theft, so the petrol station owners, such as the owner of BP St Johns in Stourbridge, are left to fend for themselves. Many sites are losing thousands of pounds every year through fuel theft.

“Our customers have seen the effect we have had on the drive-offs and for years now we have been asked to do the same using facial recognition, as retail theft is at an all-time high and getting worse every week, even more so than fuel theft!

“We have been developing the face recognition system for some time now and we’re just ready to start rolling out to paying customers.”

He said when cameras are first installed it can take time to tweak the settings and he added: “Unfortunately, this camera read the gentleman’s face and he happened to have a similarity match of over 85 per cent accuracy with one of our engineers who installed it, thus setting the alarm off as our engineer added their own face to the watch list to test the system.

“On this occasion, a series of events led to this happening which is a complete fluke and is very unlikely to happen again.

“The engineers had set the camera up and it was still in the testing phase, whilst adjusting the percentage accuracy to get the reads correct, and the member of staff working wasn’t aware it was still being tested and thought it was real and therefore reacted to the alarm.

“Everyone is now aware of what happened, and there is no longer an issue, we also wrote to the gentleman with an apology and an explanation of what happened.”

He said the images captured of customers are automatically deleted after seven days unless an incident is reported.

He added: “We’re very mindful of GDPR and we’re very upfront about it. There are signs up in the shop.”

He revealed the images/data captured can be shared if a severe crime occurs but stressed innocent customers have nothing to worry about and that it’s there to protect shoppers, staff and stock and he added: “It’s being rolled out everywhere.”

Stourbridge News: The BP garage at St Johns Road, StourbridgeThe BP garage at St Johns Road, Stourbridge (Image: Bev Holder/Newsquest)

Cashier Tahir Muhammad welcomed the use of the technology saying it “gives staff an extra layer of protection”.

While Pav Sharma, who runs the chain of garages, said the business has suffered retail theft losses of 15 to 20 per cent since the pandemic and he added: “We have to take this step to protect the business, employment and customers.

“If we do not take these measures the business will not survive.”