Forgot Your ID? The Bar Knows How Old You Are

SAN FRANCISCO — 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.

An app launched this weekend 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-based maker of SceneTap says 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, some bargoers have vowed to boycott any venue using SceneTap.

SceneTap’s ability to guess ages and genders relies on advances in biometrics. A camera at the door snaps your picture, and software maps your features to a grid. An algorithm matches your facial 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 are their estimated ages and genders and time of arrival, 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 can recognize faces with a click of the virtual shutter.

Already, 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.

Privacy experts say social media have 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.

Tien says facial recognition technology has advanced to the point that your picture offers the same degree of identifying information as fingerprints. Computer programs can identify the distinctive features of individual faces.

Those patterns enable the tracking of individuals even without knowing who they are. In theory, a program could also match that pattern to identifiable online images on Facebook.