San Francisco hates your startup: SceneTap

San Francisco denizens are angry that facial-detection cameras placed in bars by nightlife startup app SceneTap go live on Friday.
Written by Violet Blue, Contributor

When locals heard that Scenetap's facial detection cameras are going live in over a dozen San Francisco bars this Friday, the new startup received the opposite of a San Francisco welcome.

SceneTap was not met with a Ritual Roasters latte and welcome basket of organic olive oil, sourdough bread, bespoke vegan artisan cupcakes and a complimentary set of rainbow condoms.

Instead, fledgling startup app SceneTap got a sound flogging on every local blog that covered it, in addition to a thrashing on locals' Facebook/Twitter streams.

Needless to say, it wasn't the sexy kind of spankings we SFians prefer to give, either, with the shiny boots and stuff.

Right now SceneTap is backpedaling, but still coming up short with its responses. What went so horribly wrong in SF for baby startup SceneTap?

So many things.

Step #1: Launch an app that makes people feel spied on by technology

SceneTap bills itself as a Chicago-founded, Austin-based "nightlife startup." It's now being compared to "stalker app" Girls Around Me.

The SceneTap Apple and Android apps gather information from cameras that SceneTap has placed in participating bars and clubs. SceneTap claims to have already tracked over 8.5 million people.

Their cameras combine what they see with facial detection software and SceneTap's app - to provide SceneTap app users a specific, real-time data set on bar patrons. FastCompany writes,

SceneTap looks at a variety of characteristics to determine gender and age: the nose, the eyes, the jaw structure, mouth and overall face shape, forehead and skeletal structure. "It almost takes your face and creates a grid, matching general facial features to males or females, before determining how old you are," [CEO Cole] Harper explains. "In a certain sense, it's trying to find your look-alike in an anonymous database."

Step #2: Launch a spyware app for "bros" in San Francisco

Sounds awesome, right? No, no it doesn't.

Not to anyone that's in San Francisco, the epicenter for earthquakes, technology, sexual tolerance, stuck-up coffeehouses, prima donna chefs and... privacy.

Unless you're really that one guy. You know the one. The one who keeps saying that you shouldn't ever do anything on the internet that you'd ever be embarrassed about. Where is he from? (Oh right, he's from Facebook...)

SceneTap's name can be interpreted in many ways, but its modus operandi, and the way the startup's PR is framed - as a "hookup hotspot app" - the app doesn't seem very female-friendly.

For venue owners, it's a gender measuring tool; for the target market it's a "tap that ass" app, plain and simple.

But it's not just any bro-app, it's flavor-enhanced by video cameras, sure to make women feel a little more like hunted prey as we imagine a bunch of tech scene brotards getting liquored up in the Marina (or Marina lite, aka SOMA), skimming Mission bars for ones with the most chicks in them, and then showing up as if on an exotic safari.

One where we women are the game animals.

That scenario doesn't make me want to "SceneTap" - it makes me want to double-tap, to be sure.

Step #3: Act like nothing is wrong with nonconsensual surveillance

Cameras. In bars. Scanning your face. Sending information it gathers about you to a database.

Giving that information to anyone that signs up - or anyone this startup partners with for data brokering.

The likely eventual sale of this, and every startup on the planet, to Facebook. Or, the failure of hare-brained startup idea #5678388 launched in San Francisco, the fire sale of its database and cameras to whoever, and the further use of those cameras by whoever.

Yup, this will end well.


Look, some of us still see Kozmo.com messenger bags being worn around town. Right now, the way most SFians are finding out about SceneTap is by friends sharing articles about the app - as a handy list of places to boycott.

When press about your new startup hits and results in local businesses being actively targeted as a place for locals to avoid giving their business to, perhaps it's not a good time to dismiss their concerns in the raging comment thread of a primary local blog.

SceneTap's (now blood-drenched) PR is currently knee-deep in comments on various websites trying to defend itself against accusations ranging from mild to wild about what their cameras can and can't do.

They're also trying to gentle down perceptions of what kind of information on patrons is being scraped and disseminated. SceneTap insists that it's only gender, age, crowd size in venues, drink specials and "no personal data whatsoever."

Right. Gender profiling in San Francisco bars. I hereby suggest they partner exclusively with Asia SF.

Step #4: Fail to acknowledge why people are upset

It's really not helping that SceneTap is in comments telling San Franciscans they don't know what they're talking about if they haven't downloaded the app.

Especially when San Franciscans, in particular, are well versed in the tech behind invasive technologies and have been contending with their public use for years.

Commenter netik asked SceneTap,

ID scanners at the door are sold as devices to "protect the venue against underage drinking" but really are designed to skim data off of the back of the ID for marketing, demographic, and advertising purposes. That data's stored. What's to stop you from taking the image of my face, which you now have from your database and passing that to another image search to correlate my face with my social networking profile? You don't need to share pictures to mine them for demographics. Do you correlate faces visit-to-visit? Your site clams that you never store images or share them. How can we be so sure?

SceneTap responded,

Individual privacy is a huge concern, to be sure. We actually met with the FTC on this very issue a few months back to help start the conversation. Bottom line - this technology is new, and it needs to be used responsibly.

SceneTap did not elaborate on that responsible use of the technology would be, or what "responsibly" means in SceneTap's world - although they were asked to. And then there was this.

Meanwhile, some local club goers on Twitter are discussing playful ways to prank SceneTap.

Step #5: Can SceneTap recover?

SceneTap is an idea at its core that lets you know the guy-girl ratio in clubs and if the club is busy. It is for when your decision about going out is based on whether or not you want a sausage party or clambake, and if the club is "worth it."

I can't generalize about whether or not this is what SFians want - because you just can't generalize about what San Franciscans want any night of the week.

That's a huge hurdle for SceneTap to overcome (in any major city). That and the fact that as a "tap that" style app, women in the tech scene around here now feel repulsed by it.

The people who work hard in San Francisco to make Twitter go, keep the lattes flowing, the parks clean and the gays gaying love to play just as hard - we are a town that loves our nightlife (and wishes we had more).

The people here care about our bars and clubs, we care about each other, and we take our privacy seriously around here. We also know a lot about tech, so a startup that rolls in to carpetbag an invasive app space into clubbing is - in most ways - doomed to fail.

There isn't much SceneTap could have done to smooth over the idea of putting cameras into bars - in this city, anyway. And perhaps with growing national awareness about Facebook privacy concerns, our increasing TSA exhaustion, and upswing of unease about living in a surveillance society (IDs with chips, credit card databases)...

Perhaps cameras weren't the right method of execution for this idea? SceneTap could do a couple of things right now. They could make a clear statement that addresses the serious concerns being raised by San Franciscans (instead of dismissive answers - or non-answers telling people to read positive articles about the startup on tech blogs regurgitating SceneTap's PR).

It could take an aggressive stand to outline its definition of responsible use of facial recognition technology - SceneTap could partner with a respected entity in tech and privacy (EFF?) and use this as an opportunity to write a groundbreaking "best practices" for emergent businesses in the consumer sector that want to use these technologies.

This "best practices" could focus on privacy, the rights of consumers, has an end date (so it's not left hanging and forgotten), and has a data use policy that is crystal clear.

SceneTap could do everything it can to show it will not be irresponsible with the data it scrapes and gathers, and show that it deletes the data in a timely manner.

Or, SceneTap could ignore everyone here and blunder forward until someone buys it, absorbs it, and then haunt SF like the ghosts of 2001 past.

We're pretty used to that around here.

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