May 21--Pick a fight in some Long Island nightclubs and it won't be a brawny bouncer banning your return.
It will be a cyberbouncer - lifeless and smaller than its human counterpart - that will help keep troublemakers at bay.
The BioBouncer, a high-tech computer and camera that analyzes club patrons' faces and stores the images, debuts worldwide Memorial Day in a pilot program at four Island Park nightclubs.
Queens-based JAD Communications and Security developed BioBouncer, a sleek metal pole topped with a light and digital camera that feeds data to an on-site computer. Company president Jeff Dussich said the camera would help curb club violence by barring troublemakers whose pictures had been taken previously by the device and saved in its database.
"We are not just looking at a way to clean up one or two bars, but also a community," said Dussich, a 24-year-old Manhasset native.
Its arrival next weekend has raised concern about whether the device will violate clubgoers' rights by taking large numbers of photographs of law-abiding patrons. Civil rights groups fear BioBouncer could further erode what they see as shrinking privacy rights in a society where surveillance cameras sit atop traffic lights and many public buildings.
Questionable, but legal
The groups also say they are concerned law enforcement agencies could pressure clubs that use the machine to hand over the images as part of criminal investigations, and they add that someone barred from one club could be barred from other clubs that also use BioBouncer, a practice experts say is legal.
"It's not illegal, but it's certainly going to lead to a lot of errors and mistakes and people getting kicked out of clubs who haven't done anything wrong," said Chris Calabrese, counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union's technology and liberty program. "I think [club owners] are going to find it as a bad business model."
Others say critics are making too much of a photograph taken at a private business used to identify problem customers.
"People are taking biometrics and negatively comparing it to worries of Big Brother," said Robert Smith, a San Diego detective and nightclub security expert. "You're not looking for terrorists, you are not looking for wanted criminals, you are only looking for guys who are making trouble."
Dussich said law enforcement agencies investigating crimes would not have access to the pictures. However, law enforcement officials believe BioBouncer may do little for them anyway.
"The primary purpose of this system is to enhance the establishment's security," said Det. Lt. Kevin Smith, a spokesman for the Nassau County Police Department. "It's importance to law enforcement remains unclear."
To protect the rights of clubgoers, Dussich said the cache of images taken on a given night by BioBouncer are automatically deleted every 24 hours. Only those images of patrons identified by club management as troublemakers are saved in the database, Dussich said.
A picture of the process
Standing guard by a club's entrance, BioBouncer's camera will take photographs while a human bouncer checks IDs, pats down pockets and collects cover charges. Clubs will post signs telling customers of the device's presence.
The saved images will be shared by other clubs using the device, Dussich said. In many ways, this compares with what casinos do to keep out, say, card counters. If one casino posts the photograph of a counter, other casinos can keep a lookout for that offender and bar the cheater from entry.
"To simplify it, imagine one club owner taking a Polaroid photo of a troublemaker, making copies of the Polaroid, then sharing it with all other clubs in the area," Dussich said. Law enforcement experts say this practice is legal.
John Vitale, a club owner whose security director learned about the device from a news report, will have three BioBouncers installed at Paddy McGee's, the Coyote Grill and the Bridgeview Yacht Club. Vitale said there has been no major trouble at his clubs - and he hopes to keep it that way with BioBouncer.
"It's a natural deterrent," said Vitale, who convinced the owner of nearby club Montego Bay to also use the device. "If someone is a potential problem, you don't want them in."
What happens if a customer, whose image comes up on BioBouncer as a troublemaker, says that's not him or her?
They can plead their case with club management, Vitale said. In addition, Dussich said that his company will monitor use of the device through a manned 24/7 technical center.
Attorney John McEntee, whose Uniondale firm represents companies producing biometric software, said the photograph sharing among clubs doesn't appear unlawful.
"There's nothing private about your face in public," he said. However, McEntee said, problems could arise if the device is being used to exclude certain people based on race or appearance.
The reason behind it
Last year, Nassau County police responded to 131 calls for various reasons at the four Island Park clubs signed up with BioBouncer. Nine arrests resulted in charges, including assault and disorderly conduct, police records show.
Vitale said he hopes the device will keep out "bad guys" who ignite brawls or break other laws similar to a violent struggle that recently occurred at a Garden City nightclub. In March, five men were arrested on riot charges after injuring security guards at Club Posh on Seventh Street.
Nicholas Carentz, 26, of Oceanside, who has hung out at the Island Park clubs, said BioBouncer may help keep out troublemakers, but said he fears patrons who quarrel with someone who "disrespects your girl" could also be targeted.
"It's good, but not good," said Carentz.
Enjoying happy hour at the Kew Club in Queens, Lukasz Bialecki, 28, of Maspeth, said well-behaved customers have no worries.
"It shouldn't bother you if you don't start trouble," he said.
BioBouncer's initial cost is $3,000 to $5,000, then there's a $600 monthly fee. Less costly methods of policing clubs - like well-kept blacklists and bouncers with good memories - also work.
"I don't see how this hi-tech gizmo will help," said Robert Bookman, a lobbyist for the New York Nightlife Association.
Experts say biometrics isn't a perfect science. In Tampa, Fla., police no longer use face scanners because of errors in matching photographs to people, officials said.
Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based nonprofit working on free speech and privacy issues, said problems with face-scanning technology far outweigh any benefits.
"The accuracy leaves quite a bit to be desired," said Lee Tien, the group's attorney.
Generally, devices like BioBouncer make a false match once in 250 attempts, said Yevgeny Levitov, president and co-founder of FaceKey Corp. of San Antonio, Texas, which has studied biometrics for 20 years.
He added that errors are reduced by using more than one comparative image and improving lighting - steps Dussich said he has already taken.
In addition to having its own light source, BioBouncer compares multiple images to increase accuracy. For example, if 17 images match 20 stored images of a rowdy customer then "that's a pretty good match," Dussich said.
"[BioBouncer] needs to be used with the best ethics and practices," he added. "It is the utmost importance to us that it doesn't interfere with the patrons having a good time ... and to make sure their privacy is being protected."
What it looks for
Facial recognition systems identify people by distinctive characteristics, called nodal points, unique to almost every person's face. Here are some examples of nodal points: Distance between the eyes; Width of nose; Depth of eye sockets; Cheekbone, chin and jawline patterns.
At a Glance:
$3,000- $5000: Initial cost of BioBouncer installation; $600 monthly maintenance fee not included
20: Number of facial images BioBouncer scan every several seconds
1 in 250: Average number of false matches made by facial recognition software programs such as BioBouncer
[Newsday (Melville, NY) (KRT) -- 05/22/06]