That events in the UK are likened to an episode of the dystopian TV show Black Mirror – a Netflix series which does not shy away from exploring the dark sides of technology and modern society – is something I have caught myself thinking a few times.

I have wondered what it is that makes me liken real-world events to fiction. Perhaps it is that these things are so bizarre I wish it all would be fiction rather than real-word events.

My most recent thoughts were spurred by an article in The Observer, which detailed a “covert government strategy to install electronic surveillance in shops” in the form of the Home Office backing AI technology using facial recognition “to curb shoplifting”.

The newspaper was able to see the minutes of meetings between the policing minister Chris Philp, senior Home Office officials, and Simon Gordon, the founder of Facewatch – a company which says it is “the UK's leading facial recognition retail security company. The minutes seem to show “Home Office officials agreeing to write to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) advocating the merits of facial recognition technology in tackling retail crime.”

Maybe it is the timing provoking such strong reactions in me. The report comes weeks after some retail giants have reported millions and billions of pounds in profit, so much so that the word greedflation has become everyday vocabulary, while the rest of the country is relatively worse off and many are struggling to make ends meet.

Then I wonder as to whether such intensive crackdowns, which bring with them questions when it comes to privacy and human rights, are really the answer to this complex problem.

The plans come as a response to the rising reports of shoplifting. The British Retail Consortium (BRC) says they have more than doubled in British shops since 2016/17.

Retailers have spoken up about acts of violence they face; people smashing in windows, climbing behind tills, organised crime rings developing tactics to maximise their haul. Retailer Coop stated last week that, due to the increase of such events, some areas may even become “no go” zones for their shops.

While such events are worrying and should not be ignored, it is questionable whether it is these problems the new software is trying to address. Because most shoplifting incidents happen under the radar – which is why such technology is even considered.

Extreme cases of violent crime and repeat offending should not be dismissed, but neither should the reason behind the rising numbers and changing nature of shoplifting and those who shoplift and whether such technologies are the answer to this growing and changing problem.

Data by the Association of Convenience Stores found that while 53% of those caught stealing were repeat offenders, 47% were doing so for the first time.

The why is more complicated. Due to the fact that only a fraction of cases end up in investigation or charges, often linked to a lack of resources for police to investigate the growing numbers of cases, it has been said by the BRC that it is hard to see why more and more people resort to stealing.

Anecdotally, due to the timing and obvious challenges, the incidents are often linked to the rising cost of living – something only reinforced when looking at what items are being stolen the most.

In 2021, Facewatch said the most commonly stolen items are packed meat, nappies, razor blades, whisky, cosmetics, cheese, deodorants and small electrical goods.

More recently, such items were trumped by reports of baby food and medicine being top items going missing. In one London borough, one of the most stolen items was recently said to be Calpol.

According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), nearly all that reported a rise in their cost of living cited the price of food shopping as a reason, followed by gas or electricity bills, the price of fuel, and rent and mortgage costs. The ONS also found that between February and May, 1 in 20 adults said they had run out of food in the past two weeks and had been unable to afford more.

Not all these people will resort to stealing. For those that do, the fact also remains that theft is a crime. Even though some of those potentially considering to implement these technologies may still be making ludicrous profits, while others are struggling to make ends meet, I don’t want to glorify stealing as a form of purposeful rebellion to this messed-up chain of events.

What I do want to say is that I can’t help but feel that the actions taken by people that do resort to petty theft for everyday items, come from a place of need rather than greed.

And that is probably also why I can’t help but feel the Black Mirror effect when it comes to the Government’s response to curb shoplifting. This case, once again, seems to show an extreme eagerness to support reactionary measures that punish those that ought to receive more support, instead of tackling the root cause of the problem. Because when it comes to the latter, there seems to be a lot of hesitance from government politicians.

When public sector workers were striking for better, fairer pay, they were initially told that there isn’t much more money in the pot and that trying to get paid enough to make a living was driving inflation. Taxing those UK millionaires and billionaires a wealth tax is something that was continuously shouted about before and during this time. Yet, despite analysis such as that by Oxfam, which found that the richest one per cent of Britons hold more wealth than 70% of Britons, the current Prime Minister has continuously opposed such levies.

For years campaigners have called for changes to the social security system that have been left unanswered – a reform to the Universal Credit system being one of them. Instead, according to the Trussell Trust in 2022, over half of Universal Credit claimants faced food poverty.

When it comes to employment, one of the most recent such calls came from the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) last week. The body, among other things, urged for change to current procedures to help people into work. Instead of extreme monitoring and sanctions – the report states that sanction rates have doubled since 2019 – the body says to “emphasise empowerment” and to enable people “rather than threatening them; and on finding the right job rather than any job.” Such calls have been nothing new, but they do not sit well with those that believe in punitive measures.

Overall, we see strong opposition when it comes to increasing wages, better social security systems, and fairer tax systems. Yet government representatives seem to go all giddy for punitive tactics.

So, our life may not be a Black Mirror episode – although I wish I could hit pause on some of this. But that these events seem dystopian and something I wish could be fiction is undeniable.