‘Power Run Amok’: Madison Square Garden Uses Face-Scanning Tech to Remove Perceived Adversaries

Over the past month, multiple attorneys whose firms have litigation against the venue have said MSG used facial-recognition tech to find them and kick them out of shows by Brandi Carlile and the Rockettes

Barbara Hart was celebrating her wedding anniversary and waiting for Brandi Carlile to take the stage at Madison Square Garden on Oct. 22, when a pair of security guards approached her and her husband by their seats and asked for the couple to follow them. At first, Hart tells Rolling Stone she was excited, thinking it was some sort of surprise before the concert started. Her excitement turned to anxiety soon after, however, as she spoke with security and gathered that she’d been identified using facial-recognition technology. Then they escorted her out of the venue.

Hart was initially confused, having no idea why she was flagged. She says security informed her that she was being ejected because of her job as an attorney at Grant & Eisenhofer, a law firm currently litigating against Madison Square Garden’s parent company in a Delaware class-action suit involving several groups of shareholders.

Madison Square Garden Entertainment, owned by James Dolan (who has been known to kick out fans who anger him), confirms to RS that it enacted a policy in recent months forbidding anyone in active litigation against the company from entry to the company’s venues — which include the New York arena that gives the company its name, along with Radio City Music Hall, Beacon Theatre, and the Chicago Theatre. The company’s use of facial recognition tools itself dates back to at least 2018, when the New York Times reported on it; anyone who enters the venue is subject to scanning, and that practice now seems to coincide with the policy against opposing litigants.

“This is retaliatory behavior of powerful people against others, and that should be concerning to us,” says Hart, who also spoke of the incident in a sworn affidavit last month, as Reuters reported. Hart recalls that she declined to give MSG security her ID, but that they were able to correctly identify her anyway; she says security mentioned her picture appearing on Grant & Eisenhofer’s website, leading her to the conclusion that facial recognition was involved. “It was a very eerie experience to be on the receiving end of at that moment.”

Hart is not working on anything related to the Delaware lawsuit, and says she was unaware of MSG’s policy until learning of it first-hand. (She says the firm advised all its attorneys of the situation after her incident; MSG says it had notified all the potentially impacted firms of the policy.) “There’s a wealth of possibility to use technology to the betterment of our society,” she adds. “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.”

Hart isn’t the only attorney to report being identified by facial-recognition tech prior to being thrown out of the venue. Yesterday Kelly Conlon, an associate at the law firm Davis, Saperstein and Solomon, told NBC 4 in New York that she, too, was flagged with the face-scanning software before she was escorted out of a Radio City Rockettes show at Radio City Music Hall, while her daughter and the rest of the Girl Scouts troop they were with were allowed in.

Madison Square Garden appears to be banning any lawyer at an affected firm, regardless of an individual lawyer’s status (or lack thereof) in their firm’s cases against the company; neither Hart nor Conlon are involved in their firms’ suits against MSG, they say. The ban itself has led to an ongoing suit against MSG from dozens of attorneys and their firms. The judge on the case ruled that MSG could for the most part revoke and refuse to sell tickets to the firms, but that they cannot be denied entry to a show once they arrive if they have a valid ticket. Both the plaintiffs and defendants have appealed. Meanwhile Conlon’s firm Davis, Saperstein and Solomon told an NBC affiliate on Tuesday that it was looking to appeal the ban through statutes in New York’s Liquor Authority.

In a statement to Rolling Stone, Madison Square Garden affirmed its position on the policy, and notes that attorneys are allowed back once litigation is resolved. “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 in a statement. “While we understand this policy is disappointing to some, we cannot ignore the fact that litigation creates an inherently adversarial environment.”

Regarding the use of facial-recognition tools to enforce that policy, the company said the tools are an important tool for event safety. “Our venues are worldwide destinations and several sit on major transit hubs in the heart of New York,” a Madison Square Garden Entertainment spokesperson said. “We have always made it clear to our guests and to the public that we use facial recognition as one of our tools to provide a safe and secure environment and we will continue to use it to protect against the entry of individuals who we have prohibited from entering our venues.”

Hart isn’t buying it. “It’s a really lousy extension of bullying behavior facilitated by the use of this technology,” she says. “It’s power run amok. It’s baffling to me. Where can [Dolan] draw the line? Can he just draw it wherever he wants?”

The grievance between MSG and the lawyers underscores an increasingly hot-button topic, as biometric scanning technology at live events gets more advanced. On one end, some argue that this kind of scanning plays a legitimate role in keeping concerts secure for fans and artists. Taylor Swift, for instance, had face-scanning technology on tour in 2018 to ensure safety from stalkers. But the technology also brings forward thornier ethical questions. The organization Fight for the Future — which has worked with artists like Tom Morello and Kathleen Hanna in protesting the expansion of biometric tech at concert venues — has strongly criticized biometric security strategies at other venues such as AEG’s Red Rocks Amphitheater in Denver, citing privacy concerns and potential for the technology to be abused. Evan Greer, Fight for the Future’s director, says that Madison Square Garden’s practice of removing lawyers only further underscores those concerns.

“This is the perfect example to show that these tools can be used in ways that are really alarming,” she says. “In some ways, this is kind of an innocuous case — it’s not like [Conlon] was arrested. But the reality is that this was a corporation with what amounts to a petty grievance, using a deeply invasive surveillance apparatus in a way that left a mom sitting outside while her kid went into a concert.”

Greer says the implications of this technology go far beyond squabbles over whose lawyers get to see Brandi Carlile or the Rockettes perform, and could cross over into discrimination. She suggests that there’s a risk of face-scanning tech being used for purposes like ICE raids, and highlights the higher likelihood for people of color to be misidentified with this technology. Greer and Fight for the Future want biometric technology of all kinds to be banned.

“This case really shows that safety is not what they’re even using it for,” Greer says. “Here, they were kicking someone out because of pending litigation. It had nothing to do with the safety of concertgoers. And the reality is there’s other security measures in place. Metal detectors do a lot more for safety than facial-recognition technology. This is why we need lawmakers to act. As long as companies are allowed to do stuff like this, there will always be this incentive for companies to try out pushing the boundaries of how much surveillance they can get away with.”