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Nightclub ID Scanners and Your Privacy

How nightclubs, bars, and music venues use the information they scan from your ID.

The results of my Patronscan disclosure request

The results of my Patronscan disclosure request. As should be the case, my previous three scans do not show up.

There is a small chain of music venues in Sacramento I frequent that has implemented ID scanning kiosks at their front doors. At first, I was a bit put off by this, but after doing a bit of research into the platform, I think I might be okay with it. You might not be, though. Here is what you should know.

Patronscan is an ID scanning platform used at hundreds of nightclubs and bars around the world. A few of the clubs I frequent in Sacramento use them. It works by scanning your ID using optical character recognition (OCR) technology to make sure it isn’t fake, expired, and that you haven’t been previously flagged for any rowdy behavior at clubs in the network.

It also uses a second camera to capture a live photo of your face, which comes up on the screen next to your ID so the person working the door can verify that it’s your ID. Yes, it’s totally fucking creepy. If it weren’t for the fact that I had already bought tickets and I was super excited to see the band I was in line to see, I would have noped right out of there. I have since been scanned four more times.

The second time I was scanned, I noticed a sticker on one of the machines that had a small paragraph of text assuring my privacy. Okay, I thought, at least they are acknowledging that people find this shit creepy. I made a mental note to look into it further after the show. And so I did.

To their credit, Patronscan has an extremely detailed page dedicated to the privacy concerns of their platform. I recommend reading it if you are as (un)reasonably concerned about privacy as I am. It is in a Frequently Asked Questions format, and is prominently linked to in the main website navigation. They use clear language, back up their claims with actual data, and cite their sources. It is exactly what you would hope for with a service like this that throws so many big brother red flags.

Let’s go through the features, tease out the pros and cons, and see how we feel about the big brother machine at the end.

Obviously, ID verification is the standard feature you might expect for a platform like this. Violations for selling alcohol to minors hold serious consequences for nightclubs, and computers are going to be much better at catching fake or expired IDs in extremely low light. This is especially true when you consider all the forms of valid ID that can be presented at a venue. Of course this system does that, and I’m sure it makes a huge difference in cutting down on underage drinking.

Depending on your region, selling alcohol to minors can carry stiff penalties. In California, your liquor license can be revoked with as few as three violations. Consequences also include stiff fines and possible jail time for the individuals who work at the venue. Alcohol sales are a big money maker for music venues, and we definitely don’t want them to be shut down because they can’t afford to stay open. A service that makes this less likely to happen has obvious benefits, so what is the downside to all this ID scanning?

Unlike people who manually check hundreds of IDs per night, computers don’t forget what they see—at least not when they are recording the data they scan, like Patronscan devices do. We’ll address this later, but one of the features of the platform is keeping track of individuals who are flagged for bad behavior. ID scans are being recorded and saved.

Your ID contains a lot of information about you: your date of birth, your sex, where you live, your height, your weight, your eye color, whether or not you wear glasses, and whether or not you are an organ donor. Who has access to this information? Where is it stored? How is it stored, and for how long?

Patron scan claims they only store the following information from your ID:

  • Name
  • Date of Birth
  • Photo
  • Gender
  • Postal Code/Zip Code

If you are not flagged, your information is permanently deleted after 90 days. If you live in California, the U.K., Australia, or New Zealand, your data is deleted after 30 days. 21 days if you live in Canada, and 24 hours in British Columbia.

This is somewhat reassuring, but it would be nice to actually verify this. We are just taking Patronscan’s word for it, after all.

One of my last Patronscan scans was at Ace of Spades in Sacramento on October 26. I have previously been scanned at a few of their sister venues on September 7, and September 11 of this year. I live in California so my information should be deleted from their system after 30 days. I submitted a disclosure request on their website to see what that would look like, and if any of my previous scans would show up. The confirmation email that I received when I submitted the request states that the process could take up to 10 days, but my information was sent in under two hours. As I expected, they didn’t return information from my previous two scans, as they were outside of the 30-day window. One catch with the disclosure request process is that you must upload a photo of your ID. I don’t know how long the image of my ID will remain in their system.

On November 9th, I went to another show, this time at Goldfield Trading Post, a sister venue to Ace of Spades. This was less than 30 days after the previous show where I was scanned, so I submitted another disclosure request to see what that would look like. I was disappointed to see that my request was denied. Apparently you only get to make one request per month.

On the upside, there don’t seem to be any glaring inconsistencies with their claims. They aren’t disclosing any information to me that they should have deleted. On the mildly alarming side, I don't see how they could be tying a valid, verified email address to an ID. What’s to prevent an abusive partner, for instance, from uploading a scan of their abusee’s ID and submitting a disclosure request to their own email address? Is it a deal-breaker that anyone with a scan of your valid ID can see exactly when you checked into a particular night club?

As I previously mentioned, I do think this service is a net positive to both venue and honest, law-abiding patrons. There is one more downside I want to address before I get into that. The scanning process is slow—very slow.

I arrived at the sold out Ace of Spades show on October 26, 30 minutes after the doors opened, and waited in line across the street for about 30 minutes to get in. When I finally got in, I heard the remaining 4 songs of the opening band. If you are attending a Patronscan venue, and want to see the opening band, I recommend getting there well before the doors open.

Okay, the positive angle… I do think services like Patronscan are a good thing in the end. Night clubs and music venues aren’t exactly panicles of customer service. Having a more effective filter on the front door might just free up the staff enough to stop worrying about the few who cause problems, and start providing a better experience for their patrons. There are certainly privacy trade-offs, and likely some issues I am overlooking due to my middle-aged white dude privilege, but I do feel like this service makes for a safer evening for the people inside.