UK government completes trials of age estimation technology

A UK government initiative to expand the use of digital identities in the UK economy has completed its initial trial phase, which tested the efficacy of age estimation technology and digital ID apps in a variety of retail environments throughout 2022.

Led by the Home Office and the Office for Product Safety and Standards (OPSS), the nine trials allowed the supermarkets, bars and nightclubs involved to develop a “regulatory sandbox” for the sale of alcohol, using a variety of age verification and estimation technologies to assure people’s ages.

Regulatory sandboxes, such as those being developed by the UK’s information commissioner, are test environments that allow software to be trialled in real-life situations under the close supervision of regulators or other oversight bodies.

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 economy venues across Liverpool.

According to the details of the trials published by the government, the age estimation and verification process in each case was a matter of seconds, and no individual trial was run for less than four months.

In a separate document detailing “key learning from the trial”, the government said: “The work was an important step to further understanding what needs to be in place to successfully embed age verification technologies into an existing robust monitoring and enforcement licensing regime.

“The trials generated a number of outcomes that provide important learning points for alcohol retailers and for those responsible for monitoring and enforcement.”

However, it noted that usage levels changed depending on the type of digital identity verification being deployed. For example, it said 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”.

For example, despite the trial of 1account’s digital ID app in a Camberley nightclub lasting from February to June 2022, there were only 921 total downloads of the app, and 839 unique check-ins using the app, during that period.

Out of these, 417 were repeat check-ins by 141 individuals, and 422 were individuals who used the digital ID once.

However, out of the 288 people who were quizzed about their experiences with the app, 88.5% said it was easy to use and 89.6% said they preferred using it over the current physical ID scanning technology.

The government summary said that although the trials did not assess the accuracy of the estimation and verification technologies used, it 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.

“Licence holders will need to consider carefully if age verification technologies can work in their premises to realise the benefits consistently,” it said.

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 said in its “key learning” page that current licensing laws (which require presentation of identification bearing a holographic mark or ultraviolet feature for alcohol purchases) are a potential challenge to using these technologies for the sale of alcohol.

Following the trials, the British Retail Consortium (BRC) –  which Yoti and all four supermarkets involved are members of – is now calling for the government to specifically legislate so that such technologies can be used for alcohol sales.

“The BRC has long campaigned for digital age estimation technology to be used to verify a person’s age for the purchase of alcohol. With incidents of violence and abuse against retail staff sharply rising, the technology would help to make stores a safer place to work and shop,” said BRC director of business regulation, Tom Ironside.

“Digital forms of age verification can already be used for all other age-restricted products such as tobacco, knives and medicine, and there is no reason this cannot be extended to alcohol sales.”

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