A Facial-Recognition Tour of New York

We’re being watched. But when, and by whom? Kashmir Hill, the author of the new book “Your Face Belongs to Us,” took a walk around midtown the other day, to check out a few businesses that routinely capture visitors’ biometric data. She wore a red coat and white boots, and her hair was a faded purple. First up: Macy’s Herald Square. “Let’s see if Macy’s is still collecting face-recognition data,” she said. Businesses that do so are required by city law to post signs alerting visitors. She’d noticed, earlier, that the store’s signs were “very affixed to their walls.” One in an entrance vestibule, below an inflatable reindeer, stated that Macy’s “collects, retains, converts, stores, or shares customers’ biometric identifier information.”

Inside, Hill approached a member of the store’s red-blazered security staff, who affirmed that the cameras deter shoplifters. Nearby, a shopper wearing a gray puffer noticed a camera overhead, and Hill began chatting with him. “If the costs aren’t getting passed down to us, do you give up a little freedom for cheaper prices?” the shopper asked. Next, Hill engaged an architect from Brooklyn about the issue. “You don’t know that your data’s being collected,” the architect said. “There should be a bigger sign.”

Macy’s has used Clearview AI, one of the subjects of Hill’s book. (Popular Google searches involving the firm include “Is Clearview AI banned in the U.S.?,” “Does Clearview AI have my photo?,” “Does the F.B.I. use Clearview AI?”) A 2020 data breach at Clearview, which was founded, in 2017, by two men who met at the Manhattan Institute, helped reveal that Madison Square Garden and thousands of law-enforcement agencies had used the technology, too.

Hill’s next stop was the Moynihan Train Hall, in Penn Station. On the way, she noticed an N.Y.P.D. security camera on a street-light pole. “There’s some things we allow businesses and companies to do that we’re pretty uncomfortable seeing government actors do,” she said. “If the government scraped all our photos and created this massive face-recognition database, we’d probably say that seems unconstitutional. But a private company does it and the government just buys from them.”

At the station, she met up with James Mermigis, a lawyer representing two Madison Square Garden employees who were fired for not complying with vaccine mandates. Together, they walked over to the Garden. They had tickets to a concert by the 1975, but they had no intention of watching the show.

“I’ve never even heard of the 1975,” Mermigis admitted. “I had to Google it.” They were there on an undercover mission. The Garden’s owner, James Dolan, has been using facial-recognition software to screen for lawyers who are engaged in legal cases against his companies, barring them from his venues. In the most high-profile ejection, a lawyer chaperoning her daughter’s Girl Scout troop to see the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall was forced to sit out the show. Another man, whose twin brother is a lawyer, was recently forced to show I.D. before taking his seat at a Knicks game.

“I think the idea was, if you punish the lawyers, maybe they don’t drag the lawsuits out for years,” Hill said. “I was shocked by how many lawyers want to get into M.S.G. They’re all trying to go to Phish shows.” Hill tried to get in the Garden another time, with a banned lawyer, and the lawyer was turned away. (Recently, M.S.G. was the subject of a proposed class-action lawsuit alleging that the company “is weaponizing its facial recognition technology system and the consumer biometric data it collects to intimidate actual and prospective litigants and their attorneys.”)

Hill and Mermigis shuffled through the Garden’s metal detectors, under the black lenses of security cameras, and approached the ticket-scanning kiosks. “This should be fun!” Hill said.

“Can you explain this gaping hole in your résumé?”

Cartoon by Jonathan Rosen

To her astonishment, they walked right in. Mermigis, slightly deflated, located a security guard. “Do you use facial recognition?” he asked the man.

“Yeah,” the guard replied. Mermigis confessed that he was one of the lawyers banned by Dolan.

“Oh, you’re a lawyer?” the guard asked, unsure what Mermigis was driving at.

“You’d have already gotten a call at this point, right?” Hill asked.

“Look, I don’t think you’re going to get targeted,” another guard said. “It’d probably just be a bigger lawsuit if you did.”

“So you’re saying that, because of the lawsuit now, they’re not enforcing it anymore?” Mermigis asked.

“I don’t think so,” the second guard said. “They’re only going to get in the headlines.” He winked and added, “We didn’t have this talk.”

Walking to the escalator, Hill theorized that perhaps lawyers were only banned from sporting events. (A spokesperson from M.S.G. later said that discrimination cases, like the one Mermigis was pursuing, are exempt from the ban.) Mermigis headed home. He was planning to return for a Knicks game the following week. Hill decided to catch a little bit of the show. It was her first time at the Garden. ♦

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *