Here’s a modern dilemma: should I suffer a random shop employee to stop and search me, just because a beeping sensor has erroneously accused me of theft?

Many shops now have radio-frequency loss-control systems, which pair portal sensors at the exits with security tags on high-value items. The tags themselves come in two varieties: the bulky ones must physically be removed from the item at the point of sale (usually via a magnetically-operated latch). The thin adhesive tags are deactivated at the till.

In either case, they operate on a fairly simple principle: the sensors use a high-frequency electromagnetic field to induce resonance in the tag, which they then detect.

Unfortunately, they suffer from two problems. First, shop staff sometimes forget to remove or deactivate the tags.

Second—more perniciously—the sensors sometimes detect a tag where none is present. I’ve found myself setting off sensors quite frequently—not on the way out of a shop when someone forgot to remove a tag, but even the way in! It could be my radio-frequency key card for the office, or my Oyster travel card (also RF). Or maybe it’s the circuitry of my mobile phone or PDA. I just don’t know. But it’s happening enough that it’s annoying.

However, my feeling is that it’s not my problem. If the alarm goes as I’m walking through the door, I ignore it. I know that I haven’t stolen anything. Perhaps I look respectable; in any case I’m rarely challenged on my way out.

But even if I am accosted, I’ve got to the stage where I’ve realised that I’m not going to submit to an intrusive, time-consuming charade just because a machine went beep. It’s bad enough at airports, but I have to put up with it there. But I’m damned if I’m going to allow some random member of the public to search me—even if he is wearing epaulets. I do try to be polite about it, though.

Tonight, I went to Decathlon after work to buy some mittens, as it’s getting too cold to cycle in gloves. The alarm went off as I walked in, carrying my cycle pannier bag. I found a nice pair of ski mittens and bought them—I even borrowed some scissors from a helpful cashier so that I could undo the plastic ties and wear them on my way home. As I walked out, the alarm went off again.

Me: Oh, I just bought these. [Holding up gloves]
Security guard: No, it’s your bag [indicates pannier bag]. It went off when you walked in.
Me: Well, I’ve got better things to do than stand here emptying out my bag. I know I haven’t nicked anything, you know I haven’t nicked anything, so…
SG: It’s probably something from the last shop you went in where they forgot to take off the tag.
Me: I just came here straight from work, so I don’t think it’s that.

With a perfunctory greeting, I walked out. I don’t want to be difficult, but nor do I want to live in a world where I am expected to submit to a bag search because a machine went beep. Especially when it happens so often!

This also reminds me of an ironic Decathlon security story. The events that follow happened several months ago.

The Decathlon security guard places fluorescent paper tags on customers’ cycle helmets as they enter the store. I suppose that this is to distinguish them from unpaid items, although I’m not entirely convinced it’s worthwhile. On the evening in question, I was standing at the till, waiting for the debit card transaction to go through. In front of me, by the entrance, the security guard was occupied in doling out fluorescent tags to a couple of cyclists who had just entered.

Meanwhile, another member of staff had been keeping an eye on a particularly dodgy looking pair of teenagers, who were heading towards the checkouts with a couple of cycles and new rucksacks stuffed full of merchandise. It was obvious that they were going to steal the stuff, but until they actually started trying to make off without paying there was little the staff could do.

As the teenagers veered past the tills on their way to the doors, the employee shouted to the security guard, ‘Stop them!’ But she didn’t notice.

As the sensors beeped, the security guard looked up from her task to see the two thieves disappearing into the distance on the backs of their newly-purloined bicycles.

Because they were engaged in the minutiae, they missed the real event. In the same way, detaining honest consumers to inspect their bags is actually taking security attention away from the real job, and wasting everyone’s time.