Vegas' High-Stakes Surveillance Lab


By Jane Black For high rollers, the Bellagio Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas is paradise on earth. Amid the gilt ceilings and sumptuous, florid surroundings, patrons focus on one thing: Gambling. The casino even pumps in extra oxygen to keep the customers awake and alert.

All the while, the Bellagio is watching -- especially if you start winning big -- with 1,900 security cameras. Every gambling table has one above it, while hundreds more tilt, pan, and zoom in on any suspicious activity from strategic locations throughout the facility. Upstairs, in a location the Bellagio won't disclose, half a dozen surveillance experts watch and record patrons' moves. If they see someone suspicious, they capture the face and plug it into a facial-recognition program, which will quickly check to see if it matches any known cheats.

DEMANDING RESULTS. Privacy advocates don't protest the spy technology, which is used in most casinos. After all, when you enter one, you give up your right to privacy. And because these are profit-driven establishments, executives aren't lured by fancy systems that don't deliver results. The upshot: The Vegas Strip has become a testing ground for what does and doesn't work in the field of surveillance. The idea is to catch crooks -- and keep honest people honest.

In some ways, surveillance in Vegas is much like the world of computer network security. As quickly as casinos upgrade their system protections, crooks find a new hole in them. Witness a recent "cooler deck" scam that robbed one of Las Vegas' most famous casinos of $250,000. It worked like this: A gang of fraudsters, which included a crooked dealer and a security guard, managed to get hold of six official decks of cards. They put the cards in these decks in a specific order and sneaked them into the casino. Then they did some surveillance of their own, waiting for the camera above their table to be momentarily turned off while a new tape was inserted into the VCR.

At that point, the crooks switched the real deck for their ordered one. Because they knew which cards would be dealt when, they won every hand. And since no camera was taping, the casino couldn't prove that they had cheated. (That's why this casino doesn't want to be named.)

DIGITAL ADVANTAGES. In Vegas, crooks' innovation invariably leads to improvements by the casinos. Incidents such as the one described here explain why the outfits are now moving from analog-tape surveillance to digital, which requires no tape changing that would allow crooks to act unrecorded. Besides, digital images don't get lost or degrade over time. The information will be stored on massive hard drives or optical storage systems.

Digital setups also allow for easier access to crucial information. If, for example, a casino using tape is robbed, surveillance experts have to watch hours of recordings -- sometimes days of it -- in search of evidence. With digital recordings, staff can simply request that the computer system show every time that a cash drawer was opened. Then security can zoom in on each instance, with time and date, immediately.

In the past, "by the time you reviewed seven days of tapes and figure out what happened, the crooks were already on their way to Bermuda," says Scott Bartlett, CEO of Southwest Surveillance Systems, a Las Vegas technology provider. "Digital helps you ID the problem in minutes and catch the bad guys before they get away."

PLAYING CATCH-UP. Here's another scam executed in South Africa last year that has led to innovation in surveillance. The crooks knew the cameras were never turned off -- unless a patron had a dispute with the house. So five scamsters sat down at a blackjack table, and one of them kept staging arguments with the dealer about the amount he had bet. Finally, the angry gambler demanded to see the tape. The security team obliged and stopped taping what was going on at the table. Meanwhile, the crooks lifted tens of thousands of dollars while the blackjack dealer and security officials were distracted.

Many casinos have now installed backup systems that ensure every moment is captured on camera. "We're always one step behind them," admits Patricia Fischer, Bellagio's surveillance director. "But we always catch up." As the technology in Vegas proves its worth, similar precautions may soon appear in airports and other high-risk areas.

Vegas' latest spy toy is facial-recognition software. In the old days, security guys memorized books of mug shots, then peered down on gamblers through binoculars from the catwalks. Now they use this software to match known criminals' facial characteristics with those of gamblers in the casino.

"NOT THERE YET." The use of such technology in public areas (as opposed to inside a casino) has drawn the ire of privacy rights groups, who say it doesn't work as advertised and is a needless intrusion on privacy. Indeed, initial testing in Vegas has had mixed results. On the one hand, facial-recognition software can save surveillance experts time by comparing a suspicious face to tens of thousands of known cheats. But it can't yet pick out crooks in a crowd on its own. "At some point, the software will be good enough to just run in the background and alert you when it finds a match. But it's not there yet," says Fischer.

Experts in Vegas say the key lesson that terrorist-hunting feds can learn from the casinos is to rely on smart, properly trained people, not the latest gizmos. Determined crooks, after all, will always find a way to circumvent technology.

"The technology is only as good as the people behind it," says George Lewis, director of surveillance training at the University of Nevada Las Vegas International Gaming Institute and the author of The Eye that Never Blinks. "You have to think like a crook to catch a crook." The intelligence community would be wise to remember that. Black covers privacy issues for BusinessWeek Online in her twice-monthly Privacy Matters column


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