Privacy a worry as an app scans the bar scene
Firm says its technology doesn’t identify people
It’s New Year’s Eve. You can’t decide whether to hit the Allston pub or the Cambridge bar. But if your smartphone could tell you how crowded the two places were, the ratio of men to women inside, even the average age of the crowds, would that make the decision easier?
A company called SceneTap has launched a smartphone application at more than 30 bars, mostly in Boston and Cambridge, that it says can do all that right now.
But SceneTap could one day have the capability to do a lot more. That’s making some people so nervous that when SceneTap launched last spring in San Francisco, it sparked outrage and forced the chief executive to issue a letter to quell the anger. At the heart of the issue is privacy, something Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and others have learned can incite the masses when mishandled.
SceneTap gathers data by collecting images from what is called a facial detection reader inside the bars. It locks in on a silhouette from the neck up and measures 14 data points on the featureless face, determining within seconds whether the subject is male or female and the person’s approximate age. It’s not facial recognition, like the picture-taking technology used at airports. But because SceneTap’s patent application includes language about facial recognition, some critics worry it’s only a matter of time before the company tries to collect more detailed information.
“We did not file for patents with plans to invade people’s privacy,” says Cole Harper, the 27-year-old chief executive of Austin, Tex.-based SceneTap, whose app is also being used in bars in Chicago, Phoenix, Milwaukee, and several other cities. “Our plan is to grow SceneTap using our unique program to where we include every city and metro area in the United States, and then other countries.”
He says patent lawyers told the company to cover every possibility of where the technology might go so that it can remain competitive.
Here is how SceneTap works: A person downloads the free app to a smart phone. The company provides and pays for a digital body counter gadget and a camera-like device for participating venues, at a cost of about $4,000. The devices are mounted about three feet apart on the ceiling just inside the entrance.
When a person enters or exits, the first device records that movement. The second device, the facial detection reader, captures the image. (The company says because its technology cannot identify people, it is not required to post signs in bars telling patrons it is in use.)
App users can check in on any venue that uses SceneTap — they include Om in Cambridge, The Greatest Bar in Boston — and are supposed to see in real time the size of a crowd inside, the percentage of men and women, and the average age of the crowd.
“There are probably more colleges and universities per capita in Boston than anywhere else in the US,” Harper says. “College students frequent bars and clubs in higher percentages than the rest of the adult population. So think about how much time you can waste bouncing from place to place, only to find out that there’s 10 guys inside for every woman or the opposite.”
Yarden Sartena, a 21-year-old software sales representative in Boston, says she likes the premise of SceneTap, but sees the potential risk as well.
“It could be convenient to be able to check crowd levels and age and gender,” Sartena says. “But it has an air of creepy potential, if that makes any sense. It seems like technology like this, even if it starts out harmless, someone tries to take it too far eventually.”
Rachel Rappe, a 20-year-old Northeastern University student, had a different reaction.
“I can see how boys would love it, because it would be like, ‘Oh my gosh, so many girls are in that place!’ ” Rappe says. “But not for me, and I’ll bet not for a lot of women. . . . We go out in groups with the intention of sticking with our group. I don’t go out to meet new people.”
When SceneTap launched in San Francisco last spring, technology blogger Violet Blue wrote that women there were concerned SceneTap would encourage aggressive men to stake out certain bars and “make women feel a little more like hunted prey.”
Harper, in an online response, wrote: “I think I underestimated the controversial aspects of this technology and what the public’s reaction would be.” He vowed to take the concerns seriously. “I want to make sure that you feel that your personal privacy is always respected.”
He may not have a choice.
The Federal Trade Commission is so wary of where detection and recognition software could go in the near future that last spring it released a set of “best practices” guidelines for companies that use the technologies, singling out SceneTap. The guidelines followed public outcries over Facebook’s facial detection program allowing users to “tag” or identify other people in photographs, whether or not the tagged person is aware he or she is being identified.
What caused ire among SceneTap’s critics was the company’s patent application. It lists theoretical designs for expansion that could include a facial recognition program that, with the help of records such as state crime databases and social networking site profiles, would be used to conduct real-time criminal background checks and provide information on occupations and income levels of bar patrons.
“Patent applications are the dreams of lawyers,” says Jonathan Zittrain, a Harvard Law School professor and cofounder of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society. “They’re lawyers’ playgrounds, where they can speculate and use their imaginations on every possible future use or expansion of something their client’s doing now, whether or not the client has any interest in that [expansion] in the future.”
Harper says privacy concerns with SceneTap are unfounded, because facial detection software is not capable of collecting any personally identifying information. And unlike Facebook, SceneTap has no database that users can access.
“We don’t even have a database that we can access. We don’t save information gathered on the detection readers,” Harper says.
The appeal of SceneTap to bar owners is that if it is accurate, it allows them to track crowds in real time and keep a digital record of what types of people are visiting their venues and when. It could also help them figure out why slow, low-revenue nights happen.
“This application provides simple but amazing customer analytics,” says Bill Fairweather, owner of The Greatest Bar, near TD Garden. “And in the past — up till now — if you wanted that stuff you had to sort of record it by hand, sit after the fact and study security footage, things like that.”