Mon, May 21, 2012 - Page 11 News List

New app opens San Francisco bars to prying eyes


Patrons of San Francisco’s bar scene are under a watchful new eye.

A new app launched this weekend will allow users to scan the faces of patrons in 25 bars across the city to determine their ages and genders. Would-be customers can then check their smartphones for real-time updates on the crowd size, average age and male-female mix to decide if the scene is to their liking.

The Texas-based makers of SceneTap say the app does not identify specific individuals or save personal information. However, in a city known for its love of both libations and civil liberties, a backlash erupted even before the first cameras were switched on from bar-goers who said they would boycott bars with SceneTap installed.

SceneTap’s ability to guess how old people are and whether they are men or women relies on advances in a field known as biometrics. A camera at the door snaps your picture and software maps your features to a grid. By measuring distances such as the length between the nose and the eyes and the eyes and the ears, an algorithm matches your dimensions to a database of averages for age and gender.

SceneTap CEO Cole Harper says the app does not invade patrons’ privacy, because the only data it stores is their estimated ages and genders and the time they arrived — not their images or measurements.

“Nothing that we do is collecting personal information. It’s not recorded, it’s not streamed, it’s not individualized,” Harper said.

Whether the company’s promises are comforting or not, it portends a future when any camera-equipped smartphone will be able to recognize faces with a click of the shutter.

Already the iPhone’s camera app will highlight a person’s face with a green box and Apple’s iPhoto software will try to recognize the faces of people to categorize photos automatically by who is in the shot.

Facebook also uses facial recognition software that seeks to identify friends in a photo a user uploads.

SceneTap’s San Francisco debut came the same day Facebook went public. Privacy experts say social media has played a key role in making it easier to name a face.

“Ten years ago, if I walked down the street and took a picture of someone I didn’t know, there was little I could do to find out who that person was. Today it’s a very different story,” said Lee Tien, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who focuses on surveillance technology and privacy.

Tien says facial recognition technology has advanced so much that having your picture taken potentially provides the same degree of identifying data as do your fingerprints. Computer programs can break down high-resolution images in detail to identify the distinctive features of individual faces.

Those patterns, rather than the actual images, make possible the tracking of individuals even without knowing who they are. In theory, a program could also match that pattern to identifiable online images such as a Facebook profile picture.

The threat to privacy from an app like SceneTap depends not just on what is being stored, but how easily the system could be converted to become more intrusive, whether by a hacker or under a court order.

“Even if everything is happening the way it is supposed to, then the next question is: ‘Gee, is that good enough?’” Tien said. “Is that something you’re comfortable with?”

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