Balancing privacy and social distancing measures in the GDPR age

By Kevin Waterhouse, Managing Director, VCA Technology

COVID-19 will change the face of retail – both now and in the longer term. Aside from the fact it’s already influenced store occupancy (one in, one out policy) and journey, it’s soon going to have a significant bearing on how stores are laid out, as social distancing will be a part of our lives for the months and possibly years to come.

Whilst in some ways this could be viewed as an opportunity as retailers can potentially re-model stores set out years ago, with a more intuitive route, there is another problem; ensuring customers stay two meters apart. This is especially true when queuing, as this is a time when germs could be passed between shoppers as they cram into lanes not designed for the COVID-19 age. This will be a time-consuming task to police manually, whilst potentially putting security personnel at increased risk of exposure.

Additionally, for all the design and infrastructure that can be implemented, it doesn’t mean people will stick to the rules. Therefore, never has it been more paramount for retailers of all shapes and sizes to have a grip on how many people are in the store, where they are and what they are up to; thereby ensuring compliance – as there is only so much security staff can monitor.

Whilst VMS analytics and server-based analytics have been a stop-gap with regard to monitoring how many people are in the store, the technology also relies on very precise positioning of cameras to enable every interaction to be captured. However, with increasing levels of concern from the public about being monitored, especially with regard to their whereabouts and activity, placing cameras all around the store may put customers ill at ease. Also, it’s a GDPR risk; as whilst capturing bad actors is a store’s right, those innocent parties going about their shopping may resent the big brother approach – potentially impacting whether they will return or switch to a rival.

But what can retailers do to balance this need for security whilst safeguarding the wellbeing of shoppers?

The secret lies in using security technology that maps shoppers’ interactions around a store but doesn’t capture personal information. Therefore, instead of capturing everything on CCTV, analytics can be added to give retailers the insights needed to trigger alerts (for example with regard to people bunching), whilst safeguarding privacy. One such solution is gait analysis – which is unique to everyone but won’t get stored as a personal identifier like facial recognition. You can use it to help identify store hot-spots and stop double-counting, but couldn’t run it through a database to find a name and personal information. Simply tracking how people walk can identify when people are too close, where they are, and if they are behaving suspiciously or carrying out an unlawful act.

Plus, by having this overlay of analytics, gait analysis can easily count how many people are in a store, even if there are multiple entrances and exits, which can be hard to monitor. It also cuts down the requirement for multiple cameras, meaning it’s a relatively easy implementation, instead of a security camera overhaul.

Retail is carrying us through this difficult time, and despite the fact resources are stretched, it’s doing a fantastic job. What matters now is helping retailers tackle the next phase of the pandemic with confidence; so that not only they can keep the store and those in it safe, but they can stay compliant and make sure shoppers’ journeys are minimally disrupted, in spite of the challenge that lie ahead.

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