Over Thanksgiving weekend, Kelly Conlon, 44, a personal injury lawyer from Bergen County, N.J., was chaperoning her 9-year-old daughter’s Girl Scout troop on a trip into Manhattan to see the “Christmas Spectacular” at Radio City Music Hall.
Before she could even glimpse the Rockettes, however, security guards pulled Ms. Conlon aside and her New York jaunt took an Orwellian turn.
“They told me that they knew I was Kelly Conlon and that I was an attorney,” she said this week. “They knew the name of my law firm.”
The guards had identified her using a facial recognition system. They showed her a sheet saying she was on an “attorney exclusion list” created this year by MSG Entertainment, which is controlled by the Dolan family. The company owns Radio City and some of New York’s other famous performance spaces, including the Beacon Theater and Madison Square Garden, where basketball’s Knicks and hockey’s Rangers play.
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.
Facial recognition technology is legal in New York, but lawyers have sued MSG Entertainment, saying the exclusion list is forbidden. The use of facial recognition technology to enforce it has raised an outcry not just from people turned away from Knicks games, but from civil liberties watchdogs, who called it a startling new frontier that demonstrates why the federal government should regulate the technology. The local grudge match has become part of a national debate over the specter of a privatized surveillance state.
“It’s a dystopian, shocking act of repression,” said Sam Davis, a partner at Ms. Conlon’s firm who was turned away from a Rangers game this month at the Garden.
The technology, which has grown more powerful and accurate in recent years, has been used sparingly by corporations because of privacy concerns. Retailers have deployed it to identify shoplifters; airports use it to check in travelers and usher them through security; and casinos rely on it to keep out gamblers they think may cheat. But using it to bar a company’s critics is unprecedented, said Adam Schwartz, a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. He called it a “major jump forward that needs to be treated as radical.”
“This is punitive as opposed to protective. It sets a precedent for other businesses to identify their critics and punish them,” Mr. Schwartz said. “It raises the question of what’s going to come next. Will companies use facial recognition to keep out all the people who have picketed the business or criticized them online with a negative Yelp review?”
MSG Entertainment officials called the technology a useful and widely used safety tool at many sports and entertainment venues, and noted that their New York City locations are near major transit hubs.
The Garden is already known for its tight security. There is always a heavy police presence in part because the arena is in the heart of Midtown Manhattan and built above Pennsylvania Station, the nation’s busiest rail terminal. The station is patrolled by law enforcement officers and sometimes soldiers on alert for terrorism. Fans attending events at the Garden go through screenings that can include metal detectors, bag searches and explosive-sniffing dogs.
“We have always made it clear to our guests and to the public that we use facial recognition as one of our tools,” the company said in a statement.
High-tech surveillance by government is already common in New York City. The Police Department relies on a toolbox that includes not only facial recognition, but drones and mobile X-ray vans, and this month the department said it would join Neighbors, a public neighborhood-watch platform owned by Amazon. Neighbors allows video doorbell owners to post clips online, and police officers can enlist the help of residents in investigations.
A city law introduced last year requires commercial establishments to notify customers when biometric technologies such as facial recognition are in use. Signs at Radio City Music Hall and other venues inform patrons that the technology is in place “to ensure the safety of everyone.”
While MSG Entertainment officials would not say which facial recognition vendor they use, several companies offer the ability to create a database and generate an alert when a known face is spotted by surveillance cameras.
The company’s use of the technology against Ms. Conlon, first reported by NBC 4, is “terrifying,” said Evan Greer, an activist with the digital rights group Fight for the Future. Ms. Greer has called for a ban on the use of facial recognition in places of public accommodation, such as retail stores, bars and event venues.
“We’re talking about a powerful corporation’s petty grievance,” said Ms. Greer. “But it’s just really scary to think about the ways this technology could enable powerful individuals, companies and institutions to target critics, business rivals, journalists, love interests — you name it.”
Madison Square Garden began scanning the faces of customers when it hosted the Grammy Awards in January 2018. MSG Entertainment officials said the surveillance remains in use primarily to identify people who could be security threats and that the watchlist included patrons who had broken rules at the company’s venues, whether by being violent, throwing things or engaging in other misbehavior.
The lawyer ban applies to all of the company’s spaces but it is using facial recognition only in New York, it said. MSG Entertainment also operates an event venue in Chicago, but it would not be able to use the facial recognition system in the same way there because Illinois has a unique state law prohibiting the use of biometric information without people’s consent.
In New York, the Dolan family’s companies have been a frequent target of lawsuits and were sued at least 20 times in State Supreme Court this year alone. Firms on the exclusion list represent people suing for everything from personal injuries to loss of season tickets, to complaints from stockholders over business deals.
The ruined date nights are piling up. In November, Alexis Majano, a lawyer at Sahn Ward Braff Koblenz, was escorted out of a Knicks game. Last week, Nicolette Landi, a personal injury lawyer, was unable to use the $376.83 tickets to a Mariah Carey concert at the Garden that her boyfriend had bought for her birthday.
Her firm, Burns & Harris, last week filed a lawsuit against MSG Entertainment in Manhattan Superior Court, saying the ban violates a state civil rights law that prohibits “wrongful refusal of admission” to an entertainment venue.
“It’s awful what they’re doing,” said Ms. Landi, 29, who added that she did not know about the ban, had no involvement with any case against the company and attended six events at Madison Square Garden in October before her photo was added to her firm’s website. “What if someone quit the firm? How do they prove they don’t work there?”
Officials of MSG Entertainment said the company sent notification letters about the policy to law firms twice in recent months.
“While we understand this policy is disappointing to some, we cannot ignore the fact that litigation creates an inherently adversarial environment,” the company said in a statement. “Attorneys will be welcomed back to our venues upon resolution of the litigation.”
In November, after a complaint about the ban from a law firm, the New York State liquor Authority sent the Garden a letter advising it that such a policy could violate liquor laws.
The episode is just the latest controversy for MSG Entertainment’s chief executive, Mr. Dolan, who has publicly feuded with fans and former Knicks players at the Garden, which hosts hundreds of events a year, and is one of the world’s most famous arenas.
Mr. Dolan has threatened lifetime bans from the Garden on multiple occasions. Charles Oakley, a beloved former Knicks star, was handcuffed and ejected in 2017 after an altercation with security guards, and in 2019 Mr. Dolan said he would bar a fan for life after he yelled at Mr. Dolan to sell the Knicks.
As for Ms. Conlon, she missed out on the “Christmas Spectacular” at Radio City. She does not practice law in New York and had no clients in cases against MSG Entertainment, but her firm — Davis, Saperstein & Salomon — is suing one of the company’s restaurants in a personal injury case.
She spent two hours walking around. Her daughter and the rest of the Girl Scouts enjoyed the show.
Susan C. Beachy contributed research. Kris Rhim contributed reporting.