Social Responsibilities of a U.S. Company Doing Business Abroad
Empathy is missing in Society Today

Creepy Facial Recognition App Raises Privacy Concerns

SceneTap Scans Patrons and Transmits Age and Gender Information in Real-Time

You’re single and looking for someone to meet so you go to one of the bars in your home town. You decide to use a new app to scan the faces of patrons in the bars in the downtown area to determine the ages and genders of customers in the bars. You then check your smartphone for real-time updates on the crowd size, average age and male-to-female mix to decide whether the scene is to your liking. Then, you pick out the bar that best suits your needs and off you go to mingle with the crowd. Is it fact or fiction?

It is happening right now. On May 17, the Austin, Texas-based makers of SceneTap launched an app that can do just that. The app doesn't identify specific individuals or save personal information. 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’s CEO Cole Harper claims that 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. My question is how long will it be until the information does become personalized, available to the highest-bidder, and yet another area of our privacy invaded?

Whether the company's promises are true or not, it opens the door to a situation where when any camera-equipped smartphone will have the ability to recognize faces with a click of the virtual shutter. The threat to privacy from an app like SceneTap depends not just on what's being stored but how easily the system could be manipulated to invade our privacy, whether by a hacker or under a court order.

I have asked myself the question: Why is SceneTap doing it? I guess the company hopes advertisers will pay to gain access to the data and then use it to promote their own products to a target audience. The problem is customers become part of a user base and are not customers anymore.

SceneTap is already in use in six other cities across the U.S., including Chicago and several college towns. It became part of the California bar scene in San Francisco ostensibly to give potential customers another way to interact with the business. The launch was met with severe criticism by the local media, somewhat unexpected in a city that has a reputation for anything goes. Some bars refused to use the system even though they had agreed to do so. They feared the backlash from customers who rightly felt their privacy would be invaded and they had no chance to “opt-out” as is done by many other social media personal data-gathering websites.

I wonder where all of this will lead. In April, Facebook started using facial recognition to suggest the names of friends who appeared in newly uploaded photos. You can opt out of tagging, and only friends would be able to tag each other in albums. Facebook has a history of acting first and then asking for permission later. Its new face-recognition feature seems harmless on the surface but could morph into a serious threat to the privacy of our (visual) data. And, as usual, some Facebook users will like the convenience of the new features so much that they will forget the privacy trade-off altogether, or just choose not to worry about it.

The SceneTap app and Facebook facial recognition are unethical practices because there is no provision for informed consent in advance prior to using the features. How would you like it if the Department of Motor Vehicles sent information about the car you drive – make, model and year – to all major car manufacturers? Just imagine what might happen.

And now Google just revealed plans to link user data across its email, video, social-networking and other services. The changes will piece together information from Gmail to YouTube to the Google Plus social network. Imagine if you spend an hour signed in to a Google account searching the Web for downhill skiing equipment, the next time you log into YouTube, you might get recommendations for videos featuring Bode Miller, along with ads for his merchandise and the nearest place to buy them.

However, this could also apply to searches relating to sensitive topics such as – well, the bar scenes you frequent in your home town.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on May 23, 2012