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The UK government is launching a formal consultation on whether retailers can use digital identities and age-verification technologies for alcohol purchases, following calls from biometric suppliers and supermarkets to bring in new legislation that would allow them to do so.
While the government has already committed to bringing in digital ID-related legislation, including a digital trust framework to ensure greater trust in digital identity providers, it has previously said that current alcohol licensing laws are a potential challenge to the use of digital age-estimation and verification technologies for the sale of alcohol.
Under the 2003 Licensing Act, anyone buying alcohol that appears to be under 18 will need to produce identification bearing their photograph, date of birth, and either a “holographic mark or ultraviolet feature” to prove their age.
Given that in practice this means people are solely reliant on physical identity documents like driver’s licences or passports, the government has said it is keen to enable the secure and appropriate use of new technologies to improve the experience of both consumers and retailers.
“The current wording of the Act does not allow technology to play a part in the age verification process for alcohol sales. A person must make the decision on whether an individual is old enough to purchase alcohol,” said crime and policing minister Chris Philp in a statement to Parliament on 24 January.
“We are therefore consulting on whether to amend the Act so as to allow digital identities and technology to play a role in age-verification. The need for robust national standards for digital identities and technology remains paramount in order to provide confidence to retailers and consumers alike that they are fit for purpose.”
He added that any legislative changes would reflect the wider cross-government position on the use of digital technology for the sale of age-restricted products, and will only take effect once there are approved national standards in place. “We are also considering whether the Act adequately covers transactions that do not take place face to face,” said Philp. “Currently, the Act only sets out a requirement to verify age at the point of sale or appropriation to a contract, not at the point of delivery. We are reviewing whether this is still right and whether there should additionally be checks at the point of delivery and/or service.”
Throughout 2022, the Home Office and the Office for Product Safety and Standards (OPSS) conducted trials to test the efficacy of age estimation technologies and digital ID apps in a variety of retail environments.
Using a “regulatory sandbox” model – test environments that allow software to be trialled in real-life situations under the close supervision of regulators or other oversight bodies – nine trials were ultimately conducted with supermarkets, bars and nightclubs throughout the UK.
Four of the nine trials used age estimation technology developed by Yoti, which uses an artificial intelligence (AI) algorithm to estimate a customer’s age from facial scans taken at either self-checkout (as was the case with the Asda, Co-op and Morrisons trials), or click-and-collect points (as was the case with the Tesco trial).
Other organisations involved in the initiative include 1account, which trialled a digital identity app on mobile phones in Camberley nightclub Tru; Fujitsu, which partnered with Nottingham Trent University to trial a mobile app for students using passport and biometric data; and MBJ Technology, which deployed a digital identity app in 13 night-time economy venues across Liverpool.
One firm, Innovative Technology, already started rolling out its MyCheckr age estimation devices to shops and pubs in February 2023, including three Bestway Retail premises across Leeds.
The devices – standalone hardware units that use facial-recognition algorithms to estimate a person’s age – perform their functions completely offline. According to Innovative Technology, this means no biometric data is stored after the check is complete.
All of this is done in real time, with the screen turning green if the customer is of age, or red if they are too young or a follow-up manual ID check is needed.
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While MyCheckr is only framed as an aid to help staff assess people’s age, rather than a replacement for physical ID, Computer Weekly asked the Home Office why a legislative change is necessary given that suppliers and retailers can and are already deploying systems to help estimate customers’ ages.
“We are consulting on whether to amend legislation to enable digital identities and technology to play a role in determining whether someone is old enough to purchase alcohol,” said a Home Office spokesperson. “The outcome of the consultation will be published in due course.”
A government summary of the trials said that although they did not assess the accuracy of the estimation and verification technologies used, they did demonstrate the systems were sensitive to a number of environmental factors that could affect their reliability, including, for example, the positioning of equipment relative to bright lights.
It also noted that usage levels changed depending on the type of digital identity verification being deployed. For example, it said that while “uptake of age estimation technology at self-scan checkouts suggests that there is appetite for digital age assessment …the majority of trials of digital ID apps experienced very low take-up”.
Following the trials, the British Retail Consortium – which Yoti and all four supermarkets involved are members of – called on the government to specifically legislate so that such technologies can be used for alcohol sales.
“We’re pleased to see today’s news from the Home Office, discussing whether age verification technology should be allowed for the sale of alcohol,” said Julie Dawson, chief policy and regulatory officer at Yoti. “This is a significant step forward and demonstrates the growing importance and demand for digital proof of age.
“Our technology can help remove the significant challenges and high levels of abuse faced by retail, bar and security staff when it comes to assessing the age of customers. It can better protect minors from accessing age-restricted goods and give people a more convenient way to prove their age.”
Dawson added that Yoti will be responding to the consultation to share its learnings from the Home Office trials and experience of working with supermarkets.”
The consultation will run for eight weeks, after which the government will publish its formal response.