Shopping in the Surveillance State

By Victor Thorn

So-called self-checkout registers have become ubiquitous in stores across the country. But be careful. Some people have been raising alarms, warning Americans that these seemingly convenient machines that get customers to scan and ring up their own purchases are turning law-abiding shoppers into suspected criminals. This is exactly what happened recently to singer and political activist Paul Topete, a longtime supporter of AMERICAN FREE PRESS.

During a December 4 interview, Topete told this reporter of a recent occurrence that included Big Brother-style surveillance and a bizarre, drawn-out legal entanglement.

“On June 23, a couple of weeks before I was set to host Freedompalooza, I stopped by my local Walmart to pick up a few things like cheese, potatoes, diapers, juice,” said Topete. “Seven weeks later I walked to my mailbox and found a letter from a district judge informing me that I’d been charged with retail theft.”

Apparently, on that day in June, Topete went through the self-checkout aisle and bagged his own purchases. However, he said he was distracted by his child and the attendant and then walked out before putting his cash into the machine.

“I forgot to pay for these items,” he said. “I simply put the bags in my cart and left the store, thinking nothing more about it.”


Topete said he had to go before a judge on November 21. “The cop wanted to charge me with shoplifting, but after viewing the surveillance videos, it became clear that I had no intention of stealing anything,” he said. “My kid and the attendant distracted me. I had a dozen other receipts from all the days surrounding June 23 proving that I always pay for what I buy. Fortunately, Walmart’s representative said that I only had to cover the cost of what I purchased that day, which was $26.”

What’s most intriguing about this entire affair is how the authorities tracked down Topete. Store cameras followed him through every aisle to the self-checkout lane and then identified him in the parking lot where they zoomed in on his car’s license plate. The police then entered his plate in their database and discovered where he lived.

Problems associated with self-checkout lanes have caused retail chains like Costco, Jewel-Osco, Albertsons and Big Y to completely remove them.

Nevertheless, analysts at technology firm TechNavio say that self-checkout terminals are here to stay and will likely increase in the U.S. by 15% over the next three years.

Making matters worse, high-tech firms are getting ready to introduce computerized algorithmic surveillance cameras that profile customers using these self-checkout devices. If a shopper is deemed “high risk,” an alert will be sounded.

Victor Thorn

Victor Thorn is a hard-hitting researcher, journalist and author of over 50 books.

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