A group of New York lawmakers and privacy experts rallied outside Madison Square Garden on Sunday to protest the venue’s controversial use of facial recognition technology to sack attorneys whose law firms are suing MSG over the venue’s nonprofit status.
It is the most significant backlash the venue has faced to date over the policy, which has resulted in several attorneys being evicted from the venue during concerts and sporting events due to their firms’ active litigation against MSG.
Eight New York lawmakers — including Congressman Jerry Nadler and seven senators and members of parliament — wrote a letter to MSG Entertainment CEO James Dolan explaining that MSG is using the technology for “non-security purposes” and their Expressing concern that the technology could be discriminatory and inaccurate.
“We are deeply concerned that MSG Entertainment is using facial recognition technology against its perceived legal enemies, which is extremely problematic given the potential to limit freedom of expression and access to the courts,” the group wrote to Dolan. The group also called on MSG to stop using facial recognition technology altogether, and more strongly urged the company to at least destroy a policy to destroy biometric data it collects once it has served its purpose.
Lawmakers also cited MSG Entertainment’s $43 million state tax break, licenses from the state Alcohol Board and a special permit for NYC that they say will expire this year, suggesting that the venue’s current policy may could jeopardize publicly provided benefits and licenses.
“MSG’s use of facial recognition technology to retaliate against law firm employees involved in litigation against them is deeply concerning. It is an unacceptable invasion of the privacy of all of their customers and a blatant attempt to intimidate and harass those who wish to continue their day in court against the company,” State Senator Liz Krueger said in a statement. “It is absolutely time for the City and State to reconsider all permits, licenses and benefits granted to MSG in light of their continued wrongdoing.”
“As a place of public housing, MSG Entertainment has a legal duty to New Yorkers and the public to protect them from discrimination and to stop their harassment,” the lawmakers wrote. “In view of these factors, we trust that MSG Entertainment will act accordingly and immediately cease using personal biometric technology for non-security purposes.”
MSG Entertainment issued its policy toward attorneys last summer Rolling Stone that it notified affected companies when the policy began. By October, Grant & Eisenhofer’s attorney Barbara Hart had been removed from a show by Brandi Carlile, who appeared to have been identified using facial recognition technology prior to her removal because security guards were able to identify her before giving them identification documents. Hart said she was not made aware of the policy before the concert; While her firm is currently litigating against MSG in a class action lawsuit in Delaware, she says she is not a part of that lawsuit.
As NBC 4 reported, Kelly Conlon, an employee at Davis, Saperstein and Solomon, was removed from a Radio City Rockettes show the week after Thanksgiving because her company was working on a personal injury lawsuit against MSG Entertainment. Conlon himself has not worked on any lawsuits against MSG and does not practice law in New York. And as the New York Post A Brooklyn attorney was reportedly removed from a Rangers game Jan. 10.
“There is an abundance of ways that technology can be used to benefit our society,” Hart said Rolling Stone in December regarding politics. “But my real feeling here is that this case demonstrates the abuse of technology, similar to what we see when Elon Musk kicks people off Twitter just because they can.”
Several law firms sued MSG over the policy in the New York Supreme Court, and in November the judge issued an injunction for the firms, stating that the company was within its right to revoke tickets and stop selling tickets the lawyers refuse, but that they cannot be turned away at the door if they arrive with a valid ticket. As for Madison Square Garden itself, the ruling applies only to “theatrical performances and musical concerts,” not sporting events, according to the ruling. Madison Square Garden appealed to the Court of Appeals in mid-November, while plaintiffs filed a counter-appeal a month later.
A spokesman for Madison Square Garden Entertainment referred Rolling Stone to its previous statement in December. “MSG has implemented a simple policy preventing attorneys from law firms that have active litigation against the company from attending events at our venues until that litigation is resolved,” the company said. “While we understand that these policies may disappoint some, we cannot ignore the fact that litigation creates an inherently controversial environment.”
Referring to lawmakers’ request for a policy on storing biometric data, the spokesperson said: “The system of facial recognition technology does not store images of individuals, except for those who have previously been notified that they are prohibited from entering our venues, or their past misconduct at our venues has identified them as a safety risk.”
Face scanning technology is a growing topic in the live events industry. Proponents say the technology can be used to address real safety concerns at gatherings. Taylor Swift’s 2018 tour, for example, used the technology as a countermeasure against the singer’s hundreds of stalkers. Rolling Stone reported at the time. However, critics say the technology can easily be misused to discriminate against and violate the privacy of others.
“If MSG can do this to attorneys who are suing the company, they can also target employees and customers who are suing the company for breaking the law,” said Albert Fox Cahn – founder and executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, who works alongside lawmakers protested – said in a statement. “It’s terrifying to think that other companies could follow suit and that every time you assert your rights in court it means you’re banned from public life. If New Yorkers can be banned from a Rangers game, they can be banned from the grocery store or pharmacy. These technologies are ripe for abuse and are long overdue for the city and state to ban them.”