New Bar Demographics App Raising Privacy Concerns

A new social app that can scan the faces of bar patrons in order to determine their ages and genders launched in venues throughout the US this past weekend, and it has wasted little time in raising the hackles of privacy advocates harboring concerns over how much and what types of information are being stored by the program.

The app in question, SceneTap, launched in two dozen bars in San Francisco on Friday and earlier in Austin, Texas; Athens, Georgia; Bloomington, Indiana; Chicago, Illinois, Gainesville, Florida; and Madison, Wisconsin, according to Marcus Wohlsen of the Associated Press (AP) and Elinor Mills of CNET.

SceneTap scans the faces of each venue’s customers, determines their respective ages and sexes, and provides real-time updates on the average age and the number of men vs. women at each establishment, Wohlsen noted. However, while the makers of the app told the AP that it does not identify any specific person, and that it does not save any pictures or personal information, it has still given rise to privacy concerns.

“SceneTap could conceivably prove useful for a variety of retail companies, providing data on when customers shop in stores, what items they browse, and other in-store behaviors and patterns. But it also raises expected hackles of privacy watchdogs who worry the data could be combined with a person’s online footprint to do what even Google can’t do right now — match your Internet activities with your offline world,” Mills wrote Thursday.

“SceneTap’s devices“¦ keep track of the number of people who enter and exit a venue and use facial detection software on video feeds to figure out what gender and age customers appear to be,” she added. “It provides that traffic and demographic information to bar owners who can design marketing and other promotions to target specific audiences, while users of the SceneTap app can see which bars in their area are ‘hopping.'”

Several bars in California’s Bay Area, which had originally agreed to partner with SceneTap, have withdrawn their offers, due largely to negative media attention and the public’s privacy worries, ArsTechnica‘s Cyrus Farivar wrote Sunday. Farivar added that the company insists that no images are being stored.

“The only stored data are historical trends of male and female ratios and estimates of customer ages. The company says that once it has accumulated such data over time, it will make it available to bars as an analytical tool to evaluate bar traffic,” he said, adding that after speaking with ArsTechnica, SceneTap CEO Cole Harper amended the company’s privacy policy to make it clear that “no facial mapping metrics, measurements, or other data used to predict demographics are stored” by the app or its developers.

Even so, the privacy concerns revolving around the new technology remain for many.

“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,” Lee Tien, a staff attorney and privacy expert with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), explained in an interview with the AP. “Even if everything is happening the way it is supposed to, then the next question is, gee, is that good enough? Is that something that you’re comfortable with?”