OCPR USED largely in the police, the cameras worn on the body or body cameras have become de rigueur for employees who meet the public at worst: ambulance, waste control officers, ticket inspectors and security officers . Now they’re coming to retail, where customer abuse was on the rise before the pandemic and intensified during the shutdowns. According to Usdaw, a trades union, 90% of workers were verbally attacked in 2021 and 65% were threatened with violence, compared to 68% and 43%, respectively, in 2019. -distancing or limiting purchases of toilet paper. The delivery people also suffered. The pandemic has spurred online shopping and rage when orders were late or incomplete.
In law enforcement, body cameras protect police from spurious complaints and citizens from abusive agents. In retail, they are largely a deterrent. Threatening to light one is often enough to calm an angry customer, says Claire, who previously worked as a store manager. Tesco, Britain’s biggest supermarket chain, says the number of serious violent incidents has fallen by more than a fifth since it fitted its staff with body cameras during the pandemic.
Bodycam fans dismiss privacy concerns. Staff only record during altercations, they point out, and footage is deleted after 30 days. Claire says she threatened to turn hers on almost every day during the pandemic, but rarely needed to. And Britain is already plagued by surveillance, having been one of the early and enthusiastic adopters CCTV.
But critics say body cameras are more intrusive than CCTV. The camera is closer and the image resolution higher. Body cameras record audio, unlike most CCTV. Companies could use them to monitor staff. They could be tapping into images for marketing analysis, or an employee could be sharing footage of a celebrity client — both privacy breaches, says 11’s Robin Hopkins KBW Chambers, specializing in commercial law. Retail staff abuse is a pressing issue, says Sarah Gold of Projects by IF, a data company. But increasing surveillance and allowing private companies to own the data is a high price for customers to pay.
Privacy fans may be fighting a losing battle. In 2020 Omdia, a price-fixing retail company, put bodycams on the global market at $540m, four-fifths accounted for by law enforcement. By 2024, he expects the market to have reached $700 million and the share of law enforcement to have fallen to half. Most customers are large retail chains – bodycams are expensive, at £200-800 ($260-$1,050) each, depending on features, with data storage on top. That’s prohibitively expensive for most small retailers, says Andrew Goodacre of the British Independent Retailers Association.
Pandemic restrictions are now lifted. But companies are putting more emphasis on employee well-being than before Covid-19, says Marc Curtis of Fujitsu, an electronics group that sells body cameras for law enforcement and is eyeing the retail sector. Retailers are struggling to attract workers to the storefront, with Brexit-induced labor shortages an added complication. Body cameras can be an invasion of customer privacy, but the trade-offs have tipped in favor of store employees. ■
This article appeared in the Great Britain section of the print edition under the headline “Too close for comfort”