Artists boycotting venues that use facial recognition technology

Candid camera is one thing. Facial recognition's quite another - and several performers are having none of it.
4 July 2023

• Facial recognition technology is on the rise in entertainment venues.
• Madison Square Garden has used the tech against lawyers who are suing the venue.
• Leading artists are boycotting the technology – and venues that use it.

Facial recognition technology is being used by music venues across America, much to the chagrin of many musicians. Digital rights advocacy group Fight for the Future has called for face-scanning technology to be banned at all live events.

The issue is increasingly controversial, particularly after Madison Square Entertainment and James Dolan used the tech to kick out lawyers affiliated with ongoing lawsuits against the company.

Last October, attorney Barbara Hart was removed from Brandi Carlile’s Madison Square Garden concert because her firm was litigating against MSG in a class action lawsuit (Hart was not otherwise involved in the case).

While at the concert celebrating their wedding anniversary, Hart and her husband were approached by security, who informed them that she had been recognised by facial scanning technology, and then escorted the couple out of the venue.

“It’s a really lousy extension of bullying behavior facilitated by the use of this technology,” Hart told Rolling Stone of her removal. “It’s power run amok. It’s baffling to me. Where can [Dolan] draw the line? Can he just draw it wherever he wants?”

“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 previously said.

“While we understand this policy is disappointing to some, we cannot ignore the fact that litigation creates an inherently adversarial environment. The facial recognition technology system does not retain images of individuals, with the exception of those who were previously advised they are prohibited from entering our venues, or whose previous misconduct in our venues has identified them as a security risk.”

New York Attorney General Lititia James said she was seeking information regarding MSG’s use of facial recognition technology and urged the company to roll back the policy. New York’s State Liquor Authority initiated proceedings to remove MSG’s liquor license, but MSG sued over the decision and stands by its policy banning lawyers from its premises.

Venues using facial recognition technology across the States

The petty and somewhat unusual application of the tech by MSG has drawn attention to the company, but it’s not the only venue using facial scanning. Also in New York, Citi Field uses the tech, as do Cleveland’s FirstEnergy Stadium, Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium and the Pechanga Arena in San Diego, among others.

The decision to use of facial recognition isn’t solely made by venues: Taylor Swift’s security used it to identify and ban her known stalkers from the Reputation tour. However, the argument against it states that the risks (of use for corporate, vindictive, and/or potenatially racist purposes) far outweigh the benefits of spotting and barring genuinely undesirable people from gigs.

In support of Fight for the Future, musicians are boycotting venues that use face-scanning technologies. Over 100 artists, including Rage Against the Machine founders Tom Morello and Zack de la Rocha, as well as Boots Riley and Speedy Ortiz, have announced that they’re joining the boycotts.

Some of the musicians boycotting venues that use facial recognition technology.

Other artists taking part in the boycott are Wheatus and Kimya Dawson, citing concerns that the tech infringes on privacy and increases discrimination. Several smaller independent concert venues across the country, including the House of Yes in Brooklyn, the Lyric Hyperion in Los Angeles, and Black Cat in D.C., have pledged to not use facial recognition tech for their shows.

Morello and de la Rocha performed at Madison Square Garden with Rage Against the Machine last year. This isn’t the first time Morello and some of the other signatories, including Speedy Ortiz, have called for a ban on biometric tech at a famous venue.

Facial recognition technology at Madison Square Garden has been controversial.

Facial recognition technology at Madison Square Garden has been controversial.

It’s worked before. Red Rocks Amphitheater in Denver abandoned Amazon’s palm-reading technology following a protest from the artists and Fight for the Future.

New York City Council member Shahana Hanif, who previously introduced a bill that, if passed, would outlaw businesses in the city from using biometric tech to identify customers, voiced her support for the boycott.

“Facial recognition technology doesn’t keep us safe; it perpetuates racist biases and commodifies our biometric data,” Hanif said. “I am thrilled to see so many venues and artists show their support for banning the use of biometric surveillance. Our opponents claim that this technology is essential to safety in the public arena, but this support proves that it’s the very businesses being marketed by this technology that intimately understands its inherent dangers.”

Artists, venues, and fans can pledge to the cause on The site says the music industry is reeling at the fact that MSG’s owner is using facial recognition to identify, harass and ban people from his venues. “This invasive biometric surveillance isn’t safe, especially for black and brown people, who have been falsely arrested or ejected from public places due to the tech’s baked-in discrimination.”

Morella, de la Rocha, and others want to take the power back.