Clubland's Big Brother

Publish date:

Anybody with a healthy nightlife has endured serious (and unnecessary) scrutiny while entering a club, whether it's undergoing a popularity contest to pass through the velvet ropes or the rough security checks at crowded concerts. But a new security system being introduced this year adds a computerized–some would say creepy–edge to the typical screening process.

Enter BioBouncer, a state-of-the-art security system and "electronic face book," according to Jeff Dussich, the founder of JAD Communications and Security, a New York-based company that's developing and marketing the technology. A system of unobtrusive cameras that uses 2D and 3D facial-recognition technology to identify unwanted or troublesome customers, BioBouncer, which costs roughly $7500 (plus monthly licensing fees), is meant to be an electronic savior that helps high-traffic bars and clubs become safer and more secure.

Introduced in March at the Nightclub & Bar Tradeshow in Las Vegas–and currently undergoing trial runs at select clubs around the country–BioBouncer is a simple setup. A pair of video cameras scans and analyzes patrons and checks them against images in the club's database of problem customers. These customers–who were kicked out for causing trouble or violating club policy–had their pictures captured by trigger cameras at the exits and added to the system's database. When they try to re-enter the venue at a later date, BioBouncer picks their photo out of the database, alerts the owner and security personnel (via a computer screen or wireless message), and the real-life bouncers get to work. Dussich wouldn't comment on when and where BioBouncer made its debut, but club owners from as far away as Germany, Italy, and New Zealand have all expressed interest.

Similar technology has found its way into airports and onto city streets (London is a known customer of such tech), all in the name of preventing terrorism. Even Chicago mayor Richard Daley has slated his interest in the club-watching technology. But do clubs, which already require ID, need more wired security? While it all sounds straightforward and safe, this kind of surveillance makes people nervous for a reason. Organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union have raised concerns about the technology in the past, citing the level of intrusiveness and high incidence of false identification as potential problems. Since BioBouncer allows clubs to link up their databases and share information, the possibility exists that one bad night could get you on a digital blacklist.

"Who decides what a bad infraction is?" asks Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a non-profit consumer-advocacy organization. "Can you be bounced from a club for the wrong reasons? One of the things I would question is accuracy. Are they going to get a good enough photo of someone to get a good biometric template? I think there could be room for abuse here."

Even Dussich admits the technology can trigger anxiety. "It raises privacy concerns immediately," he said. "That's why we're trying to be proactive before it snowballs into some Big Brother fear that we know is looming out there. It's not like I don't understand our generation and I'm out to hatch an evil plan. I'm 24."

Dussich is certainly ready with answers. The system has been tested in all types of lighting conditions and only collects photos, not names or other info. It's not connected to national or government databases, so it won't scan for criminal records. Most importantly, he stresses, it only stores data on "troublesome" customers. The program automatically deletes everyone else's photos at the end of the night. Since human beings are making the final decision about kicking out customers, the system is more of a tool, not the final word.

Like any technology, biometrics won't create a Big Brother-type scenario by itself: People must misuse it first. But do we really need to have our faces scanned at the places we go to to enjoy ourselves and escape? Has their been a rise in nightclub violence to warrant this type of security? Is the added efficiency of this system worth the invasion of privacy? "This system, to me, sounds like a solution in search of a problem," says Givens.