Madison Square Garden enforces ban via facial recognition

Madison Square Garden
“They knew my name before I told them. They knew the firm I was associated with before I told them. And they told me I was not allowed to be there.” (Source: Andrew nyr – CC BY-SA 4.0)

Anyone banned from Madison Square Garden Entertainment Corporation (MSG) properties in New York has to miss out on some of the city’s biggest sporting, entertainment and concert events. This includes, for example, Knicks and Rangers games and Billy Joel and Madonna concerts. This is also currently affecting thousands of lawyers because MSG has banned them from entering its venues all together. The employees of 90 law firms have done nothing wrong, but are employed by companies that represent clients in legal disputes with MSG. Now the New York attorney general’s office has gotten involved in the case. It is investigating whether MSG has violated any laws with this action.

Whether the lawyers themselves are working on cases against MSG is not a factor in the bans, according to U.S. reports. MSG operates Madison Square Garden in New York, as well as the equally famous Radio City Hall and other major venues in other U.S. cities.

The access bans also attracted public attention because the company that operates them uses automatic facial recognition software in the event halls, and has also used it to enforce its domiciliary rights. Despite valid tickets, employees of the law firm were refused entry or were deliberately ordered out of the halls after entering. In none of the cases were the affected persons aware that their identity was automatically checked during their visit.

Wrong employer

For example, attorney Barbara Hart told Rolling Stone in December about being taken away by security guards with her husband in October prior to a concert at Madison Square Garden. The couple was celebrating their wedding anniversary that day.

Security personnel reportedly told her that automatic facial recognition had identified her. In doing so, the employees had mentioned a picture of her on her employer’s website, she said. Because she is employed by the law firm Grant & Eisenhofer, she had been ordered to leave the building.

The reason for this is an ongoing legal dispute between MSG and some investors, who are represented by Hart’s employer, among others.

MSG confirmed what happened in a December statement to Rolling Stone. It said the group had issued a policy barring anyone involved in ongoing litigation against the company from entering its venues. Controversial CEO James Dolan also confirmed to Fox 5 TV that facial recognition would also be used against law firm employees.

“This is retaliatory behavior of powerful people against others, and that should be concerning to us,” Hart had warned Rolling Stone. The case demonstrates the misuse of technology, he said.

“They knew my name”

MSG has been using facial recognition at its venues since at least 2018, with cameras taking pictures of all visitors and comparing them to a photo database via an algorithm, The New York Times had reported at the time. The technology is used for security purposes, according to the owner.

A second incident had occurred in December in the entrance area of Radio City Music Hall. Attorney Kelly Conlon, along with her daughter and her daughter’s Girl Scout troop, wanted to see the show dance group The Rockettes. Conlon works for Davis, Saperstein and Solomon, a New Jersey law firm whose clients are fighting a lawsuit with MSG regarding a restaurant.

In December, Conlon told NBC 4 that she was intercepted by security guards as she passed through the metal detector at the entrance to the venue. Over the loudspeakers, she said, “something was heard about a woman with long dark hair and a gray scarf”. The description matched her.

Security personnel had then refused her entry and asked for identification. “I think they said, ‘our recognition has picked you up,’” the attorney reported. “They knew my name before I told them. They knew the firm I was associated with before I told them. And they told me I was not allowed to be there.”

The group of girls had to attend the show without their mother. Conlon himself, by his own admission, had never worked on the case with MSG.

Frightening use of facial recognition

MSG had notified at least two law firms involved in litigation in late June 2022 that its employees would no longer be allowed to enter venues including Madison Square Garden, Radio City Music Hall and Beacon Theatre. The ban would remain in effect until the legal disputes are resolved.

In the letters to law firms, the company justified the entry restriction on the basis of “professional conduct rules” that would prohibit contact between plaintiffs’ attorneys and MSG employees. “While we understand this policy is disappointing to some, we cannot ignore the fact that litigation creates an inherently adversarial environment,” MSG told NBC 4. The company has a right and duty to protect itself during litigation, a company spokeswoman wrote in an email to Reuters news agency.

“This whole scheme is a pretext for doing collective punishment on adversaries who would dare sue MSG in their multi-billion dollar network,” said Sam Davis, co-owner of the law firm where Conlon works. “Taking a mother, separating a mother from her daughter and Girl Scouts she was watching over – and to do it under the pretext of protecting any disclosure of litigation information – is absolutely absurd.” The fact that MSG is using facial recognition to do this is frightening, he said.

Court wants answers

According to New York Attorney General Letitia James, MSG’s actions may violate local, state and federal laws, such as anti-discrimination laws. The attorney general’s office made the announcement in late January. “MSG Entertainment cannot fight their legal battles in their own arenas,” James told the Financial Times. She worried that minorities could be discriminated against. “Anyone with a ticket to an event should not be concerned that they may be wrongfully denied entry based on their appearance.” MSG should withdraw the policy, he said.

Following the reports of automatic facial recognition, the attorney general had asked the operating company for answers. A letter to that effect had been sent to MSG, James announced last week.

A Delaware judge, who was presented with MSG’s policy in November, called it “the dumbest thing I’ve ever read,” the Financial Times reported. Gregory Varallo, a lawyer involved, told the court that MSG “used facial recognition software to search all the websites of all the companies involved and then used that facial recognition software at [Madison Square] Garden and other locations.”

“MSG’s use of facial recognition technology […] is an unacceptable invasion of the privacy of all of its customers and a blatant attempt to intimidate and harass those who want to pursue their cases in court against the company,” State Senator Liz Krueger said Monday, according to the Financial Times. It’s time for the city and state to reconsider all permits, licenses and benefits granted to MSG, she said.

“This is bad, and it’s just one example of how facial recognition could be used to violate people’s rights,” Evan Greer, director of Fight for the Future, said in a statement. “This technology puts music fans, sports fans and others at risk of being unjustly detained, harassed, convicted or even deported.”

In December, MSG nonetheless said it does not plan to abandon automatic facial recognition anytime soon. CEO Dolan also announced last week that he plans to actually expand and double the use of facial recognition at venues. He justified the surveillance measures to CNN by saying, among other things, that people would always be watched by cameras when they were in public. (hcz)