(HYPEBOT) – Public safety vs. privacy is central to the debate about facial recognition software at concerts and other public events. Madison Square Garden just proved that the tech is effective, but perhaps not in the way that was intended.
by Tim Cushing from Tech Dirt
A private company can legally declare it has the right to refuse service to anyone (with a very small number of limitations under the law, mostly around discrimination against protected classes). The application of facial recognition tech makes it much easier to do. Rather than post photos and bad checks on the back wall to inform employees who aren’t welcome, companies can utilize tech companies and their databases of unknown provenance to make these calls for them.
MSG Entertainment – the company running New York’s Madison Square Garden and other venues — has chosen to turn over its doorman duties to facial recognition tech. Setting aside the fact (for the sake of argument) that this tech tends to subject minorities and women to higher rates of false positives/negatives, recent events at MSG Entertainment-owned venues suggest maybe it’s not a wise idea to do certain things just because you can.
For instance, this mini-debacle, which involved separating a mother from her Girl Scout daughter when both were trying to attend a show at Radio City Music Hall:
Kelly Conlon and her daughter came to New York City the weekend after Thanksgiving as part of a Girl Scout field trip to Radio City Music Hall to see the Christmas Spectacular show. But while her daughter, other members of the Girl Scout troop and their mothers got to go enjoy the show, Conlon wasn’t allowed to do so.
That’s because to Madison Square Garden Entertainment, Conlon isn’t just any mom. They had identified and zeroed in on her, as security guards approached her right as he got into the lobby.
Conlon was approached by security, who told her the facial recognition system had flagged her. They asked for identification and then proceeded to eject her from the venue. No explanation was given, but Kelly Conlon has reason to believe the ejection was personal.
“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,” said Conlon.
Conlon is an associate with the New Jersey based law firm, Davis, Saperstein and Solomon, which for years has been involved in personal injury litigation against a restaurant venue now under the umbrella of MSG Entertainment.
Was Conlon reading too much into this? If this were an isolated incident, the answer might be “possibly.” But Conlon isn’t the only lawyer working for a firm involved in litigation against MSG that has been refused entry by the company’s facial recognition tech:
A Long Island attorney says he was kicked out of a Knicks game after getting flagged by facial recognition technology at Madison Square Garden — the same system the company used to boot another lawyer from a Rockettes show.
“I was upset — we had a whole night planned out that got botched,” said lawyer Alexis Majano, 28. “I said, ‘This is ridiculous.’”
Majano — whose law firm has a pending lawsuit against Madison Square Garden Entertainment in an unrelated matter — was headed into the game against the Celtics with pals on Nov. 5 when he was stopped on an escalator, he said.
Majano works for law firm Sahn Ward Braff Koblenz. The firm recently filed a lawsuit on behalf of a person who fell from a skybox at Madison Square Garden while attending a concert. He’s just one of several lawyers who have apparently been banned from attending events hosted by MSG Entertainment simply because they work for firms engaged in litigation against the company.
These bans are now leading to lawsuits. And these lawsuits target ejections dating back to this summer, when lawyers started to notice a strange pattern of ejections targeting members of law firms engaged in litigation targeting MSG Entertainment.
While private companies do retain the right to refuse service to anyone for nearly any reason, the question being asked is whether being adjacent to litigation is a legal reason to refuse service, especially since the ejections occur after MSG Entertainment has already chosen to sell tickets to people it then ejects when they arrive to make use of their purchased goods.
Legal or not, the optics are terrible. Not that it appears to matter to the person running the company.
Its chief executive, James L. Dolan, is a billionaire who has run his empire with an autocratic flair, and his company instituted the ban this summer not only on lawyers representing people suing it, but on all attorneys at their firms. The company says “litigation creates an inherently adversarial environment” and so it is enforcing the list with the help of computer software that can identify hundreds of lawyers via profile photos on their firms’ own websites, using an algorithm to instantaneously pore over images and suggest matches.
It’s a free market. There’s no Constitutionally-guaranteed right to event attendance. Private companies can, for the most part, pick and choose who they want to do business with. But deploying unproven tech with a proven track record of being wrong far too often puts people at the mercy of both billionaires and whatever method they’ve picked to increase ejection efficiency. If MSG is concerned lawyers might be trying to gain an edge by attending events simply to do some snooping, it seems it might be able to find a court-based solution that serves this purpose.
This is a bad look for MSG, even if it’s completely legal. It indicates it doesn’t have much confidence in its defense against these lawsuits. It also indicates the facial recognition tech systems aren’t there to ensure public safety, but rather to allow MSG Entertainment to refuse entry to anyone it considers to be an enemy. And if it continues to work this well, it will encourage other businesses to do the same thing: silence critics by simply refusing to allow them entry.
And it’s a tactic that’s pretty much guaranteed to encourage at least the state’s government — via court decisions or legislation — to issue mandates that restrict the private rights of businesses. In the long run, this probably isn’t going to work out for MSG’s management. And, until it’s all settled, the company can continue to punish its perceived enemies for committing the offense of providing legal services to people who feel they’ve been wronged by MSG Entertainment. If MSG wants to prove it’s in the right, let it do it in court. Deploying sketchy tech to blacklist people who’ve never violated any venue rules is a terrible way to handle a “problem” that appears to only exist in the mind of the MSG’s owner.