A group of New York lawmakers and privacy experts gathered outside of Madison Square Garden on Sunday to protest the venue’s controversial use of facial recognition technology to kick out lawyers whose firms are suing MSG, calling the practice a violation of privacy and suggesting that its continued use could potentially put the venue’s public benefits into question.
It’s the most significant backlash the venue has faced to date over the policy, which has resulted in several attorneys getting ejected from the venue during concerts and sporting events because of their firms’ active litigation against MSG.
Eight New York lawmakers — including Congressman Jerry Nadler and seven state senators and assembly members — penned a letter to MSG Entertainment CEO James Dolan, stating that MSG is using the technology for “non-security purposes,” and expressed concern that the tech can be discriminatory and inaccurate.
“We are gravely concerned that MSG Entertainment is using facial recognition technology against its perceived legal enemies, which is extremely problematic because of the potential to chill free speech and access to the courts,” the group wrote to Dolan. The group also asked for MSG to stop using face-scanning tech altogether, and more firmly demanding that at minimum the company establish a policy to destroy biometric data it collects as soon as it’s served its purpose.
The lawmakers also pointed toward MSG Entertainment’s $43 million state tax abatement, along with a special liquor permit which they note is set to expire this year, suggesting that the venue’s current policy could threaten those publicly-supplied benefits and licenses.
“MSG’s use of facial recognition technology to retaliate against employees of law firms engaged in litigation against them is deeply concerning. It is an unacceptable invasion of the privacy of all their patrons, and a blatant attempt to intimidate and bully those who might want to pursue their day in court against the company,” state senator Liz Krueger said in a statement. “It is absolutely time for the city and the state to reconsider any and all permits, licenses, and benefits provided to MSG in the face of their continued malfeasance.”
“As a place of public accommodation, MSG Entertainment has a legal obligation to New Yorkers and the general public to protect them against discrimination and cease harassing them,” the lawmakers wrote. “With these factors in mind, we trust MSG Entertainment will act accordingly and immediately cease the use of personal biometric technology for non-security purposes.”
MSG Entertainment enacted its policy against the attorneys last summer, telling Rolling Stone that it notified impacted firms when the policy began. By October, Grant & Eisenhofer attorney Barbara Hart had been removed from a Brandi Carlile show, seemingly identified with face-scanning technology before her removal as security guards were able to identify her before she gave them any ID documents. Hart said she wasn’t made aware of the policy prior to the concert; while her firm is currently litigating against MSG in a Delaware class action suit, she says she isn’t a part of that litigation.
As NBC 4 reported, Kelly Conlon, an associate at Davis, Saperstein and Solomon, was removed from a Radio City Rockettes show the week after Thanksgiving because her firm was working on a personal injury suit against MSG Entertainment. Conlon herself hasn’t worked on any suits against MSG and doesn’t practice law in New York. And as the New York Post reported, one Brooklyn attorney was removed from a Rangers game on January 10.
“There’s a wealth of possibility to use technology to the betterment of our society,” Hart told Rolling Stone in December regarding the policy. “But my real feeling here is that this case is demonstrative of the abuse of technology, akin to what we see with Elon Musk kicking people off of Twitter just because they can.”
Several law firms sued MSG over the policy in New York’s Supreme Court, and in November, the judge issued a preliminary injunction for the firms, stating that the company is within its rights to revoke and refuse to sell tickets to the attorneys, but that they can’t be turned away at the door once they arrive with a valid ticket. Regarding Madison Square Garden itself, according to the ruling, the statute applies only to “theatrical performances and musical concerts,” not sporting events. Madison Square Garden appealed the ruling to the Appellate Court in mid-November, while the plaintiffs counter-appealed a month later.
A spokesperson for Madison Square Garden Entertainment referred Rolling Stone to its previous statement from December. “MSG instituted a straightforward policy that precludes attorneys from firms pursuing active litigation against the Company from attending events at our venues until that litigation has been resolved,” the company said. “While we understand this policy is disappointing to some, we cannot ignore the fact that litigation creates an inherently adversarial environment.”
Regarding the lawmakers’ demand for a policy on the storage of biometric data, the spokesperson said, “The facial recognition technology system does not retain images of individuals, with the exception of those who were previously advised they are prohibited from entering our venues, or whose previous misconduct in our venues has identified them as a security risk.”
Face-scanning technology is a growing topic within the live events industry. Advocates say the tech can be used to stop genuine safety concerns at gatherings. Taylor Swift’s tour in 2018, for instance, used the technology as a measure against the singer’s hundreds of stalkers, Rolling Stone reported at the time. Critics, however, say the technology can be easily misused to discriminate and violate anyone’s privacy.
“If MSG can do this to attorneys suing the company, they can also target employees and customers who sue the company for violating the law,” Albert Fox Cahn — founder and executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project who protested alongside the lawmakers — said in a statement. “It’s terrifying to think that other companies might follow suit, and that anytime you exercise your rights in court it will mean getting banned from public life. If New Yorkers can be banned from a Rangers game, they can be banned from the grocery store or the pharmacy. These technologies are ripe for abuse, and it’s long past time that the city and state ban them.”