The machines … are watching

  • n the surveillance equipment room at the Mirage Resort in Las Vegas, these video encoders process feeds from more than 1 000 overhead cameras.
  • Three types of cameras feed the video wall in the Mirage"â„¢s surveillance room. Fixed-field-of-view units focus on tables, motorised pan-tilt-zoom cameras survey the floor, and 360-degree cams take in an entire area.
  • Thousands of cameras built into the ceiling can cover more than 80 per cent of a casino.
Date:31 January 2010 Tags:,

Las vegas casinos are incubators of the world’s most advanced surveillance tech. And the spy gear that helps sin city has taught everyone from government to big banks how to snoop more effectively.

It is 2 am inside the bunker-like surveillance room at the Mirage Resort in Las Vegas, but 28 wall monitors show there’s still plenty of action down on the floor. A surveillance worker we’ll call Tom logs in and starts the graveyard shift, taking an overhead tour of the 9 300 m2 casino. Using a joystick, keypad and three desktop screens, he surveys video from some of the 1 000 ceiling cameras.

Tom is a table-games specialist, so he starts by scrutinising a few poker hands, then sweeps over medium-stakes blackjack and watches a busy craps table. Nothing looks unusual until he stops at a baccarat game in the high-limit room, where betting minimums start at $100 (about R750) a hand. He focuses on a young Asian man in a white suit who keeps his hands curiously positioned. Sometimes they cover the cards in front of him; at other times they rest on the side of the table. Suddenly, the man sweeps one hand up along a lapel of his jacket.

Like many gamblers in Las Vegas, the man presented a players card, the equivalent of a customer-loyalty card, to the dealer before buying into the game. Through these cards, the casino monitors the play of guests and dispenses complimentary goodies accordingly (risk enough money, and you may wind up in a villa with a butler). The card enables Tom to retrieve a profile of the player: his name, date of birth, address, amounts won and lost on previous visits and other data.

Tom checks the player’s long-term success rate at baccarat: he’s a stone-cold loser. Common sense suggests that his poor record should exonerate him. Playing a hunch, Tom uses an internal search engine to correlate every player and dealer that the suspect has gambled with at the Mirage. One name repeats – a big winner, also Asian. On this trip alone, he’s ahead hundreds of thousands of dollars, and he happens to be playing right now, at the same table as Mr White Suit.

Less than an hour later, Tom makes the call. He is convinced that the fellow in the white suit is not rubbing his lapel but dipping his finger inside his jacket. He is swapping cards in and out of the game, a tactic known as hand mucking. Capitalising on baccarat’s simple rules, which allow gamblers to take the side of player or banker, Mr White Suit loses minimal wagers while his confederate wins large ones from the casino.

When the winning conspirator attempts to cash out his chips, guards detain him. Other guards hustle the mucker from the table. The cheater tries to break free, then drops to his knees and eats the card that he had slipped inside his jacket. He may have swallowed the evidence, but the casino’s digital ceiling cameras have captured all of his illicit actions.

Soon after this incident, the Mirage outfitted its baccarat tables with a system known as Angel Eye. A scanner hidden in the shoe – the plastic case out of which cards are dealt for multi-deck games – reads invisible bar-code strips on the cards. “Angel Eye identifies the cards as they come out and conveys that information to the dealer,” director of surveillance Ted Whiting says. If a player swaps in a card, the dealer knows. “That one change put card muckers out of business here.”

Enter a major Las Vegas casino, and you might as well be walking into a complex computer built to study your relationship with money, your motivation for gambling, even your taste in food. Cameras capture your every move, software calibrates your play, and regressive-analytic applications (like those used on Wall Street to predict a stock’s future) estimate your long-term worth to the casino.

Given the wild bets taken recently by investment banks, the overlap of gambling and financial technology may not be surprising. But the innovations pioneered for Las Vegas surveillance rooms have significance and applications that reach a lot farther than a trading floor. According to Dave Shepherd, former executive director of security at the Venetian Resort Hotel Casino, Las Vegas is an ideal proving ground for innovations that eventually end up in airports, shopping malls and government agencies. “There is no Underwriters Laboratory for security technology,” says Shepherd, who serves on a casino-focused council affiliated with Homeland Security. “Casinos use the earliest versions of security and surveillance devices. People in other industries see how they work, and those people come up with fresh applications for the technology.”

Vegas’s gaming industry, after all, has the resources and incentives to be a pioneer in surveillance tech and data mining. “Casinos employ the most talented cryptographers, computer security experts and game theorists,” says John Pironti, chief information risk strategist for Archer Technologies, a Kansas-based company that specialises in data protection. “Casinos are vulnerable and have a vested interest in being innovative.”

A modern Vegas property is a microcosm of a wider world, with restaurants, a hotel, entertainment venues, retail shops and a sophisticated system of currency exchange. It’s all in a highly controlled environment where customers eagerly volunteer personal data for a chance at comps. As a result, casinos maintain a treasure trove of information on customer behaviour that most marketers would die for. Players cards and gambling in general are opt-in propositions. The casino industry is highly regulated, and the watchful tech is not only legal but, in many cases, mandated. Still, the opaqueness of the programs is a cause of concern for some privacy advocates. “Why should casinos have secret files on their best customers?” asks Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Centre (EPIC). “People should know the information that casinos gather on them.”

Digital data has a long memory, and effective surveillance technology spreads fast. The software that measures your gambling skill at the blackjack table today could be gathering data for your performance review at work tomorrow.

Paying close attention to customers is as much a security concern as it is a marketing opportunity for casinos. From the moment you place your first bet with your players card, the casino starts paying attention. “That financial transaction feeds into a data-warehousing platform,” says David Norton, chief marketing officer of Harrah’s Entertainment. The most direct interface with the system is a modern slot machine. These days most slots are run by computers, and until recently, all of these computers have been self-contained machines. To make adjustments on standard slots, attendants have to stop play, open the housing and swap out chips, a time-consuming process that reduces profits for the casino.

The Mirage’s soon-to-open sister property, Aria Resort & Casino, however, will be the first casino in Las Vegas outfitted with server-based slot machines. That means Aria’s one-armed bandits will run off a single computer, allowing supervisors to alter machines simply by pushing backroom buttons that can change games, odds and limits to suit the player or the situation. If a player is in town for the National Finals Rodeo, the slot machine could load up a game with a rodeo theme, and alert the player when certain comps kick in or provide the showtimes of events he might be interested in. It’ll even wish him happy birthday.

All the personal attention may seem flattering so long as the casino values your business. But what about those people who are viewed as undesirable? At the Venetian Resort Hotel Casino, special software allows security workers to enter a suspected bad guy’s characteristics (a moustache, say, along with a forearm tattoo and a habit of lurking around roulette tables). If there is a visual match from the casino’s database, it pops up on the screen, along with identification data.

“We have a lot of coverage, a lot of cameras, a lot of information,” says Dan Eitnier, head of surveillance at the Venetian. “A couple of years ago we had a collusion situation, and by finding the suspected dealer’s car-loan application in our file on him” – the lender had asked the Venetian to confirm his employment there – “I saw that he gave one of his frequent players as a reference.”
The scheme unravelled from there, and both men were busted.

New algorithms have elevated this type of on-the-spot background check to a Vegas art form. Non-obvious relationship awareness (NORA) software allows casinos to determine quickly if a potentially colluding player and dealer have ever shared a phone number or a room at the casino hotel, or lived at the same address. “We created the software for the gaming industry,” says Jeff Jonas, founder of Systems Research & Development, which originally designed NORA. The technology proved so effective that US Homeland Security adapted it to sniff out connections between suspected terrorists. “Now it’s used as business intelligence for banks, insurance companies and retailers,” Jonas says.

According to EPIC’s Rotenberg, any industry that collects so much data on its customers is at risk for a computer security breach. “Even if casinos have no interest in using their information for any purpose other than the intended one, things don’t always go as planned.” Especially, he points out, since security teams at competing casinos often share information.

With all the data collection and camera monitoring going on in casinos, a sense of gambler’s paranoia is understandable. But it’s worth remembering that the same technology that protects the house could end up protecting you. Casinos are tempting places for pickpockets; customers stroll the floors with cocktails in their hands and thousands in their pockets. Some of the sexiest- sounding software – facial-recognition systems that promise to set off alarms as soon as a known criminal enters the property – is still too primitive to be useful. However, more reliable analytic software is employed in casinos such as the Mirage to monitor video feeds for suspicious activity – someone hiding in a stairwell, for example, or a purse left unattended too long.

The most advanced surveillance tool in the gaming industry is focused on the blackjack tables at Barona Resort & Casino in Southern California, where management aggressively tests new technology. The system, called TableEye21, was created by Canadian computer engineer Prem Gururajan to profile and rate players according to skill.

TableEye21 uses overhead video cameras and video analysis software, and can track information from casino chips embedded with radio frequency (RFID) transmitters. The system quickly identifies “advantage” players who can cost casinos profits. These gamblers use legal strategies such as card counting and shuffle tracking, in which the player watches for clumps of favourable cards. Gururajan says TableEye21 will be coming online soon at a Vegas casino, and surveillance specialists are enthusiastic about the product. “You get a printout of the player’s skill level, how much you can expect to win from him and whether the dealer is making errors,” Gururajan says. “Since the system tracks the player’s bets, the casino knows exactly how good a customer the player is.”

Sometimes, casino monitoring can go too far. A few years ago a product called MindPlay hit the market. Fourteen tiny cameras photographed cards as they came out of the blackjack shoe. The system’s software executed a quick bit of analysis and notified dealers, in real time, whether shoes were cold or hot – that is, when the remaining cards favoured players. “ at would be a good time for the casino to come up with an excuse to shuffle,” says veteran security director Arnie Rothstein. “Players found out about it and complained to the Gaming Control Board.” The product, according to its manufacturer, is no longer in use.

Inside his plushly carpeted surveillance lair at the rococo Venetian, Dan Eitnier inspects the flat-screen monitors on the walls. He acknowledges that technology runs both ways in the gaming business: the operators aren’t the only ones who capitalise on cheaper bytes and easy access to data.

Eitnier admits that all casino games are vulnerable. Enhancements in technology have simply added another layer to the endless cat-and-mouse game played by those who are paid to protect casinos and the renegades who get rich by out-thinking the protectors. “Whenever new technology is introduced, you always have people out there who want to beat it,” he says. Cheaters buy and dissect slot machines, angle-shooters analyse automatic shufflers in search of patterns, and card counters continue to stymie facial recognition. “They find weaknesses in the technology, and then we come up with new technology that they have not yet figured out.”

Eitnier leans back in his chair and keeps his eyes on the monitors. He smiles. “Of course,” he says, “without those people trying to beat everything, I wouldn’t have a job.”

Data jackpot

Las Vegas’s gaming industry invests in the best surveillance and behavioural monitoring technology in the world. But casinos aren’t the only ones interested in high-tech snooping. Here’s who’s looking at you.

Licence-plate reader
Many casinos know who you are before you even walk through the door. At the self- and valet-parking areas of the Mirage, for example, cameras scan the licence plates of vehicles as they enter. Pictures of every plate are then run through optical character-recognition software. If your plate matches a database of undesirables, the security personnel may hand back your keys and suggest you take your business elsewhere.

• Beyond Vegas – Licence-plate scanners are now commonly deployed in police patrol cars to check traffic for suspect vehicles.

Eye in the sky
Thousands of cameras built into the ceiling can cover more than 80 per cent of a casino. Computer-vision systems automatically scan for suspicious activity on the fl oor (people congregating in odd areas, unattended bags) as well as at the tables (dealer errors, cheating players).

• Beyond Vegas – Similar systems are also used by airports to watch for potentially dangerous activity, as well as by retailers, which uses the technology to monitor traffic patterns in stores and to harvest data on customer shopping behaviour.

Smart tables
Several systems kick in once you get to the table: cards printed with invisible bar codes discourage deceitful players from swapping in fakes; non-obvious relationship awareness (NORA) software determines if you share enough background data with the dealer to be suspected of collusion; and analytic programs determine your skill as a player.

• Beyond Vegas – Developed for casinos, NORA technology is now used by US Homeland Security to look for ties between suspected terrorists. Banks and insurance companies also use NORA to sniff out relationships between customers.

RFID chips
Money talks in Vegas, but your chips speak in code. Some casinos, such as Wynn Las Vegas, have high-frequency radio transceivers hidden in the chips. The technology can be used to confi rm that the chips are legit and can also be used for real-time accounting, so that management knows where the money is at all times.

• Beyond Vegas – Tiny, cheap RFIDs are so pervasive that millions of people carry at least one of these trackable transceivers on themselves at all times, in the form of a corporate ID, contactless credit card or toll-collection pass.

Networked slots
Server-based computerised slot machines allow casino management to change games and set odds remotely, then push games out to each machine from a centralised location. When used with a loyalty card, the game can track betting patterns and deliver a customised game to the player.

• Beyond Vegas – Slot machines all operate using a complex algorithm known as a random-number generator. And the same type of program that determines jackpots is also useful for high-tech cryptography, which protects government secrets via encryption.

Cashier's window
The cashier’s window is the last line of defence against those who try to take advantage of the house. Automated document scanners can determine if an ID is valid before a cashier dispenses a credit card advance for chips. If things don’t match up, an automatic call goes to security before the perp or cashier even realises there’s an issue.

• Beyond Vegas – Real-time document verification scanners are used to instantly check the authenticity of IDs at border crossings, banks and nightclub doors.

SA casinos – eyes everywhere

South African systems are similar to their US counterparts.

A larger casino in SA would generally run 2 to 3 distinct systems – depending on the casino/complex layout – with between 700 and 1 200 cameras and up to 700 TB of data storage in a bigger casino, says Michael Caffery of Specialised Video Solutions, the largest casino system integrator in sub-Saharan Africa.

These quantities are stipulated by the relevant province’s gaming rules and regulations.

Audio recording is required on all tables as well as cashier booths and any count rooms/vaults. All money handling equipment in the cashier booths and count rooms must be interfaced to the surveillance system, so that any discrepancies can be verifi ed with a visual audit.

Alarms or illegal events at a machine must alert the system automatically and switch the relevant views to the operators. The slots on line system must be interfaced to the system.

Downtime is a no-no, says Caffery. “We run a modular encoder/ server/RAID5 storage solution. We build in further redundancy by providing a re-route facility – should the system trigger an alarm, say from a failure, we utilise a video matrix to switch the failed module to a standby module automatically.”

Storage durations are legislated: in Gauteng, these are 7 days for slots and tables, 14 days for cashier booths, and 30 days for count rooms and associated areas (regulations vary between provinces).

Other systems on site (such as retail areas and parking) can feature up to 600 cameras, but these generally do not fall under Gaming Board regulations.

“We are also looking at Video Smarts to increase efficiency,” says Caffery.
 

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