[telecom] SceneTap facial-detection company brings controversial nightclub app to Boston

Privacy a worry as an app scans the bar scene

Firm says its technology doesn't identify people

By James H. Burnett III | GLOBE STAFF DECEMBER 26, 2012

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.


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