SceneTap Bars Tap Into Patron Outrage by Failing to Consider Privacy Concerns

By: Chris Conley

When a number of bars in San Francisco agreed to install facial detection cameras to collect and broadcast demographic information about the bar's patrons, the local community lashed out – not only at SceneTap, the developer of the service, but also at the bars who agreed to use it. Outraged patrons wrote scathing reviews on sites like Yelp and threatened to boycott bars that installed the service. By installing a camera that captured "user data" without giving customers any way to control that data or choose not to participate, the bars left their patrons with only one real choice to protect their privacy: skip SceneTap bars entirely.

The bars that installed SceneTap hoped to cash in by recruiting new customers drawn in by the service's mobile app, but failed to consider its impact on current patrons. Bar patrons were not given any way to opt out of having their face captured by a camera provided by an unknown, off-site entity whose product has been compared to "creepster application" Girls Around Me and generally described as sexist. Moreover, by installing SceneTap's cameras, bars not only allowed a third party to come in and potentially invade patrons' privacy, they made many patrons feel like they "were being looked at as a user base and not as customers anymore."

By simply announcing their plans to install these cameras and staying quiet after complaints, the bars continued to alienate their customers. Only a few bars even publicly acknowledged their patrons' concerns, with many of those backing out of the "experiment" altogether. Most of the bars instead relied on SceneTap's own emergency PR campaign to "fix" San Francisco's perception of its service— which consisted of entangling itself in a hostile comment thread, adding a small clarification of its privacy policy, and posting an "open letter" on its website trying to explain that its service does not invade bar patron privacy—rather than directly acknowledging and addressing patron concerns. As a result, many online commenters lumped SceneTap and the bars that chose to install it together and expressed their disdain for both.

The fallout from the SceneTap kerfuffle demonstrates that privacy isn't only a concern for online businesses. Every company, whether it is an online advertisement agency or a local bar experimenting with new technology, needs to proactively address the privacy concerns of its users and customers. Data collection can be so simple and sexy – but just because information can be collected and used does not mean doing so is in the best interests of a business's customers and therefore the business itself.

There are lessons here for every business whose plans involve data collection or otherwise raise privacy concerns:

For more information on how to build privacy protections into your business, please see our primer: Privacy and Free Speech: It's Good for Business.

Chris Conley is the Technology and Civil Liberties Fellow with the ACLU of Northern California.