SceneTap launched in several Austin bars last January and no one seemed to care all that much.
But at that time, Cole Harper, SceneTap’s CEO, wanted to make sure that we reported correctly on his company’s facial detection technology. He wanted people to know that it does not record identities and merely reports on how many men or women are at a bar at any given time and their ages so patrons could judge whether or not they wanted to join the scene. He was afraid there might be a privacy backlash.
Austin-based SceneTap gathers information from video cameras and collects statistics on the demographics of who’s at a bar. It then compiles the stats into percentages and posts them to a website or mobile app. Consumers can’t see the data associated with the stats to protect privacy.
Here’s the story we wrote at the time of the launch. And as far as I could gauge, the reaction in Austin was not that great. Certainly, no one protested the technology.
But that’s quite a different reaction to SceneTap’s reception in San Francisco. The company launched in several bars there last Friday and dozens of articles have been written about the controversy the so-called Big Brother technology has stirred up there. People have threatened to boycott bars employing the facial detection technology.
And now SF Weekly Blogs is reporting that San Francisco bars are nixing “SceneTap’s Creepy Facial Detection Cameras.”
To address the controversy, Harper has penned a letter to San Francisco. The letter is posted below.
Dear San Francisco,
We’ve taken a lot of heat in the past few days and I can completely understand the concern. I realize there are aspects of our technology that could appear to be controversial and raise serious red flags for people, and I assure you I’m not taking it lightly. I know that up until this point we’ve tried to explain what the app is all about in an attempt to set the record straight, but I owe you more than that.
Criticisms in the past week have broken down into two groups: invasion of privacy and a “creepy” app for men to hunt down women. I do understand how that might be your initial reaction after reading some of the blog posts and articles that talk about the app, so I’d like to take this time to better explain the technology and ease these concerns.
When I started SceneTap with my friend, Marc Doering, our intent was for this to be a lighthearted app for consumers and one that would help venue owners with their marketing efforts. Our first thought was “wouldn’t it be great to know what’s happening somewhere before you waste money on a cab?” To get that info, we could pay a doorman to click a button, but that would get expensive and manipulated quickly, so no go. We could use check-ins, but that would rely too much on users and pull personal information, as other geo-location services do – besides, check-ins would never encompass the entire population of a place, so that would be an incomplete evaluation of the scene.
Then we looked at video-based software, which could automatically translate an image into data. Facial recognition was ruled out for privacy reasons and the complexities of user governance. Facial detection, on the other hand, could only figure out facial features through an algorithm, and estimate, with a high level of accuracy, the gender and age of a person. The technology cannot identify an individual person. Recognition says, “Cole Harper walked in, and he’s a 28 year old male living in Austin with 300 friends on Facebook, and here’s his email.” Detection says, “This person appears similar to a male, age 28.” There’s no personal information collected or transmitted within that data.
Further, we knew that in publicizing any of this data, personal or not, we had a responsibility to present it in a way that protected operators and users. So we decided not to present any individual data either. Everything is shown as a percentage or an average over time. Further, we let venues and users decide on business rules to cap out what statistics would show. Male percentage would never exceed 72%, because that would negatively impact the perception of the venue (based on feedback). Female percentage would never exceed 58%, because it may create a “correction” from a swarm of males showing up. In almost a year, we’ve never had any complaints or concerns expressed from a user on the way we display this information (although operators do want to show a higher number of females and a lower number of males, for obvious reasons).
Back to the “video-based” software. Here’s the thing – there are no videos or images stored at any time. Once the data is triggered, the images are overwritten, deleted, gone. There are no tapes. There is no video feed either. No one can go to www.scenetap.com and see what is happening. It’s all data and numbers – that’s it. And since we’re only focused on the door, you’re free to do keg stands and dance like Bernie or hit on that bartender all you want – we do not track you in the venue.
Unfortunately, I think I underestimated the controversial aspects of this technology and what the public’s reaction would be. I know it’s hard to just take me at my word on this, so that’s why I’ve been trying to explain how the technology works in an attempt to put everyone at ease.
Because this is such a serious issue, we’ve been working with Congress, the FTC, and privacy advocate groups to further the privacy agenda as the world becomes increasingly filled with these types of cameras. I’ve also heard your suggestions about working with organizations like the EFF, and it’s something I’m going to explore because I want to make sure that you feel that your personal privacy is always respected.
At the end of the day, there isn’t a way to use SceneTap to go out and target specific women (or men) – all you can do is find out where there are more women or men of a certain age range. The “crowd size” has been most universally used in the decision on where to go, which has nothing to do with the gender/age component. For us, it’s about helping locals and tourists alike find the place that’s right for them. We aim to be more like an objective Yelp, a real-time Zagat…a tool to help you make your decision.
While gender is an interesting novelty, most of our users report using the app to find the scene that is right for them. For some people, it’s finding a bar that’s super packed with young people. For others it’s finding a less crowded bar where you know you’ll get a table or can chat on a date. I actually use the app more to find a place to watch a game with friends or the place with the good food/drink specials, so long as it isn’t dead.
I hope this helps to explain some things for everyone. I really do understand the concerns, but I want to assure you that we are working closely with both the government and the industry leaders to ensure that everyone’s privacy is protected. I think San Francisco is a great city full of passionate, smart people, and you know your technology and social media better than anyone else. I’m glad you’re challenging SceneTap and keeping us on our toes. You’ve given me some very serious things to consider, and you’ve helped me to see that I need to address the potential flaws in my business (perceived or actual) if I want this company to succeed.
If you have any questions, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org . Things will be crazy with the launch over the next few days, but I will personally take time to respond to everyone who reaches out to me as quickly as possible.