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It’s high time to update the UK’s outdated licensing laws.

November 30, 2022

We’ve spent the past year working with representatives of the police, trading standards officers, retailers, the Institute of Licensing and other experts in the field to review the practical implementation of the UK’s licensing laws, under the auspices of HM Government’s Expert Panel on Age Verification.  In parallel, the Home Office has sponsored a “sandbox” which facilitated pilots of digital age assurance technology across the country.  And the Proof of Age Standards Scheme is reaching the conclusion of a process to enable universal acceptance of digital proofs of age by retail, leisure and hospitality venues. 

It is clear from all this activity that it is high time to review and update the regime that governs the sale of age-restricted goods and services, in particular for alcohol.

The first and most obvious change would be to bring the UK into the 21st Century, and allow the use of digital methods to prove your age. Young people these days don’t need wallets or purses – they can pay for everything with a tap of their phone.  They might even open their car door without carrying keys. But we still require them to carry a piece of plastic, or even a small paper booklet called a passport, to buy beer.

This is not only unnecessary, but in fact misses the opportunity for a far more legally effective and privacy-preserving approach to implementing age checks. 

We know that human beings are very poor at both estimating age, and checking ID documents.  Test purchasing results where youngsters just over 18 attempt to buy age-restricted products show that, for example, checks are only carried out successfully in 74% of home deliveries – falling to just 47% for rapid-delivery services. In-store checks do not tell a much better story.  Staff either don’t ask at all, or if they do, they fail to spot fake, altered or borrowed documents.

We also show far more personal data than is required as part of this process.  Some nightclubs even photograph ID’s at the door, recording not only the proof that you are 18+, but also your name, specific date of birth and even your home address.

Digital proofs of age allow users to release only their age attribute, and show a photo to prove they are the owner of the proof.  That of course still relies on staff to match the face of the customer to the image, and this can be done more effectively using technology to compare a new image of the user with the image stored when their age was established. Electronic proofs of age can be validated using cryptographic techniques that prevent their content from being altered. When debating the relative accuracy of products in the market today, the comparisons are between 98, 99 or 99.9%, way above the figures found by test purchasing companies with conventional staff checks (47% for ultra-fast doorstep delivery services, for example).

The government set industry the challenge of agreeing a standard for digital proof of age, and the PASS-5 standard has been developed and approved by the Proof of Age Standards Scheme.  The final piece of that puzzle is a robust mechanism to allow any retailer or other venue accepting such digital proofs to check the validity of what they are being shown.  This means confirming the data on it – picture, age – is accurate and that it belongs to the customer producing it.  PASS is in the final stages of selecting a technical solution that will do just that, and do so for digital IDs issued by any approved supplier – an interoperable solution that leads to universal acceptability.

And while these reforms improve privacy protection, they also allow for a comprehensive audit trail recording how age was checked for each and every restricted sale, whether that takes place in a store or on the doorstep as goods are delivered.

Another important reform would add clarity around the responsibility for enforcing age restrictions when goods are delivered.  A 12 year-old explained to us how the boys at school order alcohol – they ask for it to be left in a designated “safe place” and can select an option to tell the driver not to ring the doorbell, but to text them when the delivery has been made instead.  That way, the child never sees the member of staff, and their parent doesn’t know the party booze supplies have arrived.  Only by making it clearer that an adult had to be involved in the purchase process by requiring age verification before the sale is made online can such risks be eliminated.

There is also the ability to improve the effectiveness of a “Challenge 25”  approach where currently staff must assess if a customer looks over 25, and if not, ask to see proof of age.  Facial age estimation technology set to estimate if someone looks over 25, or even set at a younger threshold of say, 21, will rarely pass a child under 18 as looking over these higher test ages.  And by rarely, we are looking at fractions of a percentage point, which again when compared to the error rate of the average cashier, is in a different league.

There is a vast array of legislation that governs age-restricted sales in the UK – see the latest edition of Tony Allen’s book “Age Restricted Sales: The Law in England and Wales” to appreciate this fact – and there may be much else to consider improving, but a move to accepting digital identity as proof of age, requiring comprehensive online age checks before sales for delivery take place, and supporting staff making challenge 25 decisions with age estimation technology are some of the most obvious changes to start with, and will certainly improve what are in some cases shockingly low levels of compliance with the law, putting children at great risk of significant harm.

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