Marketing startup SceneTap uses video surveillance to categorize patrons in bars and clubs

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The term “surveillance society” was coined in 1985 by sociologist Gary Marx, who defined it as “all-encompassing use of computer surveillance technology in modern society for total social control”. Given that there are now security cameras in every store, office, bus, train, intersection, and ATM, it is clear that the first half of his definition is now reality. As city dwellers, we are captured on dozens, maybe even hundreds, of security cameras per day… and we don’t care. Aside from some vague hand-wringing in the media and the inevitable outrage of the tin-foil hat contingency, there has been little protest against the rapid proliferation of surveillance cameras. But why?

1) It’s for safety. Average citizens aren’t worried about security cameras because they aren’t planning to do anything bad. Furthermore, many people might view surveillance in this context as a good thing, in the off chance that it would help prevent or solve a crime of which they are the victim.
2. It isn’t organized. Most people aren’t worried about being captured on security cameras because they assume there is anonymity in numbers – with one camera recording 9,000 hours of footage in a year, why should their particular two minutes draw anyone's attention? Furthermore, the transition to digital recording has not changed perceptions of security surveillance as a “dumb” process, whereby contextless video is captured, dumped into storage (a VHS tape or hard drive), and eventually overwritten. In this model, a particular recording might be of a birthday party, a bank heist, or a bear riding a unicycle, but there is no way to tell until the footage is watched by a human operator.

Enter SceneTap. According to this article on SF Weekly, SceneTap is an Austin-based marketing company whose free app (of the same name) provides a real-time demographic snapshot of the crowd at a bar or club. With SceneTap, participating business owners place cameras inside their establishments, and then SceneTap’s technology identifies faces in the video and gathers metrics on the current male-to-female ratio, average age, and crowd size – all in real time.

As you can see in the comments on the SF Weekly post, the overwhelming majority of people object to this application of surveillance technology, viewing it as intrusive and “creepy”. But why is SceneTap more controversial than the 4-camera CCTV in a convenience store? Because the “why” and “how” are different. Surveillance could be called a “necessary evil” when the end goal is safety, but it’s hard to make the same case when the end goal is finding where da hotties at. Furthermore, by analyzing someone’s face for their gender and age, SceneTap is doing automated identification and categorization work that takes away, in some small degree, the ability to be “just another face in the crowd”.