From Casinos to Counterterrorism
Monday, October 22, 2007
LAS VEGAS -- This city, famous for being America's playground, has also become its security lab. Like nowhere else in the United States, Las Vegas has embraced the twin trends of data mining and high-tech surveillance, with arguably more cameras per square foot than any airport or sports arena in the country. Even the city's cabs and monorail have cameras. As the U.S. government ramps up its efforts to forestall terrorist attacks, some privacy advocates view the city as a harbinger of things to come.
In secret rooms in casinos across Las Vegas, surveillance specialists are busy analyzing information about players and employees. Relying on thousands of cameras in nearly every cranny of the casinos, they evaluate suspicious behavior. They ping names against databases that share information with other casinos, sometimes using facial-recognition software to validate a match. And in the marketing suites, casino staffers track players' every wager, every win or loss, the better to target high-rollers for special treatment and low- and middle-rollers for promotions.
"You could almost look at Vegas as the incubator of a whole host of surveillance technologies," said James X. Dempsey, policy director for the Center for Democracy and Technology. Those technologies, he said, have spread to other commercial venues: malls, stadiums, amusement parks.
And although that is "problematic," he said, "the spread of the techniques to counterterrorism is doubly worrisome. Finding a terrorist is much harder than finding a card counter, and the consequences of being wrongly labeled a terrorist are much more severe than being excluded from a casino."
Eyes in the Sky
The casino industry, like the national security industry, is seeking information to answer a fundamental question: Who are you?
"It's, are you a good guy or a bad guy? A threat or a non-threat?" explained Derk Boss, the vice president for surveillance for the Stratosphere hotel and casino, whose crew operates under what he calls the IOU system: Identify, Observe and Understand.
"There are going to be people that just want to come and gamble and enjoy your services," he said. "And there are going to be people that are going to come to take your money. Our job is to distinguish between those two groups."
In the surveillance room, 50 monitors are linked to 2,000 cameras, from the casino entrance to the tower observation deck. Two employees keep an eye on the monitors. Guests are on camera from the moment they enter -- except in their rooms and in bathrooms. An investigator tracking a suspect could go back and review old tape, assembling a mosaic of a visitor's moves for the past two weeks.
What happens in Vegas does indeed stay in Vegas -- for a lot longer than most patrons realize.
On a recent Friday night, the surveillance team at the Stratosphere is watching a casino host they suspect of handing out unwarranted "comps," or vouchers for free rooms and meals to guests. Might he be taking kickbacks?
Down on the floor, the pit boss is observing players, looking for "tells" -- behavioral signs of cheaters or other undesirables. The night before, investigators identified a blackjack player as a card counter. Casinos dislike card counters because they can determine when the cards are to their advantage and raise their bets accordingly. When the pit boss told the card counter he could bet only the minimum amount, he cashed in his chips and left.
While casinos have been monitoring suspicious behavior for years, the Department of Homeland Security is just now deploying specially trained officers to look for behavioral clues and facial expressions.