- Associated Press - Saturday, May 19, 2012

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) - A watchful eye has arrived on San Francisco’s bar scene, but not to keep you in check. It just wants to check you out.

A new app launched this weekend that will 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 men-to-women mix to decide whether the scene is to their liking.

The Austin, Texas-based makers of SceneTap say the app doesn’t identify specific individuals or save personal information. But 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 any venue with SceneTap installed.

SceneTap’s ability to guess how old people are and whether they’re 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 doesn’t 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 SceneTap still seems creepy, it portends a near future when any camera-equipped smartphone will have the ability to recognize faces with a click of the virtual shutter.

Already the iPhone’s camera app will highlight a person’s face on the screen with a green box before the picture is even snapped. And Apple’s iPhoto software will try to recognize the faces of the people in users’ pictures to categorize photos automatically by who’s in the shot.

Facebook also uses facial recognition software that tries to identify any 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 major role in making it easier to attach a face to a name.

“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 to the point that having your picture taken potentially offers up the same degree of identifying information as giving someone your fingerprints. Computer programs can break down high-resolution images in minute detail to identify the distinctive features of individual faces.

Those patterns, rather than the images themselves, 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’s 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 that you’re comfortable with?”

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