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Face-scanning tussle in Manhattan gets bigger, louder

Face-scanning tussle in Manhattan gets bigger, louder

Madison Square Garden in New York City has a colorful and pugilistic past, one that can be seen reflected in the facility’s current role in the face-biometrics debate.

Management of The Garden booked P.T. Barnum’s circuses as soon as the first MSG was opened in 1879 but the repeatedly rebuilt hall eventually became better known globally for hosting the biggest boxing matches of their times.

The pugnaciousness of The Garden and New York are on vivid display as face scanning becomes another polarizing fact of life in the city.

James Dolan, CEO of Madison Square Garden Entertainment started the ball rolling here. Dolan has decided to use face-matching software, which he began installing in MSG in 2018 for security, to prevent attorneys from law firms opposing him in court from entering facilities he manages.

MSGE owns the property rights to several of the city’s highest-profile venues (as well as several around the nation) and owns an entertainment booking firm.

Ruckus raised, New York state regulators are considering the revocation of all MSGE liquor licenses in the state, including its clubs. The state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Law forbids retailers from selling alcohol to some but not all eligible members of the public.

Knowing his company cannot survive without liquor sales and, by all accounts relishing a public fight, Dolan has sued the New York State Liquor Authority to prevent them from considering further.

(State legislators have considered allowing hospitality businessowners to offer their repeat customers the option of face-scanning in place of digging out an ID.)

The authority is a “gangster-like” agency, Dolan charges in his suit, that causes most businesses to “cower in the face of their outrageous abuses,” according to reporting by local news publisher amNY. It is a corrupt organization, he alleges.

According to another New York City news publication, the Gothamist, Dolan has publicly threatened to dox the liquor authority’s chairman, displaying paper printed with the chair’s photo, email and phone number. If the government does not back down, the papers go up around the city, apparently.

In part because of this bickering, the city itself is examining its own rules for business’ use of facial recognition algorithms.

A New York Times article updated Monday reported on the city’s efforts to understand which businesses are using facial recognition and what policies (such as how false positives are handled) they follow.

As it happens, city ordinance requires retail businesses using face biometrics to identify banned patrons to post a note alerting people of the practice. The reporter of the piece said she walked for several hours up and down the island and found very few businesses post such signs. It is, of course, possible others use facial recognition but do not post signs.

Now, the easily provoked Libertarian political movement has opened its own front on the battle.

Reason, the best-known Libertarian publication in the United States, sees an opportunity to strike blows against what the party perceives as Covid public-policy tyranny.

Mandatory masking is disappearing around the state, and now New York Mayor Eric Adams has asked business owners to make anyone entering their premises wearing a mask to temporarily remove it so their face can be scanned by facial recognition algorithms.

The mayor says too many face-scanning applications are not accurate enough when people wear masks. As a result, shoplifters are wearing masks to commit “petty but visible property theft” (Reason’s words) with impunity, according to Adams.

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