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Aria security is the old-fashioned way — watching people

25 August 2014

LAS VEGAS -- Always remember a face? The National Security Agency apparently does, too, thanks to controversial technology.

Many media organizations including the New York Times reported that the agency curates millions of “facial recognition-quality” images per day. These photos are intercepted from daily communications such as emails, texts and social media, and are harvested for databases used to catch terrorists.

Adm. Michael Rogers, director of NSA, confirmed the top-secret program this June. Although Rogers declined to detail the program, he reported a 30 percent improvement in facial recognition algorithms developed since 2010.

But as the government funnels billions of dollars into expanded criminal databases and computer vision technology, why are Las Vegas casinos shying away?

Local cheat investigator Beverly Griffin said it’s a matter of quality and data. Her company, Griffin Investigations, owns a comprehensive criminal database filled with card counters and casino cheats. Clients around the world subscribe to Griffin’s database for its information, but she said the capabilities of facial recognition technology are limited by both the cameras used to record images and the system photos used to cross-check hits.

“I’m sure in the government sector it’s working well, and I’m sure that they have a very-high-quality product and a very large database,” she said.

But in a casino, Griffin said, facial recognition is imprecise. Her company tried the technology when it was first available, but low-megapixel cameras combined with dark casino lighting and a lack of direct angles produced too many false positives.

“As soon as facial recognition came out, all the people (in casinos) that didn’t want to be identified put on a baseball cap and sunglasses,” Griffin said. “It’s very simple to avoid.”

Catching someone on camera, however, is not. And casino surveillance investigators are always watching.

“The best facial recognition that I have is my people,” Griffin said. “Everybody has a feature that stands out — their nose, ears, a scar, a mole — something.”

Ted Whiting, director of surveillance at Aria Resort & Casino, reiterated Griffin. Although Whiting said MGM Resorts International dabbled in computer vision in 2006, the casino operator stopped using biometrics because it wasn’t accurate enough.

Instead, Whiting relies on a small, skilled surveillance team and a complex system of cameras. The team is filled with former dealers, cage tellers, security officers — even a retired dentist. Together they patiently observe.

Hotel guests board escalators with their bags. Dealers call games and collect chips. Tired tourists trudge toward exits and onto the street.

Nearly 4,000 cameras cover activity in 98 percent of the luxury resort. Everything that happens is monitored. Every incident is recorded; every red flag investigated.

“You can’t walk through Aria without us catching your face,” Whiting said. “It’s virtually impossible.”

His small group of experts looks for physical giveaways of anxiety — nervous body language and behaviors that computers can’t detect.

The team monitors the standard deviation at tables, making sure the house advantage is always maintained. If the math is off, they peek in for a closer look.

“If you come to Aria to cheat or take advantage, you’re more likely to get caught here than anywhere else,” Whiting said.

Aria was the only Las Vegas casino that openly discussed its security system. Although the resort was transparent, MGM Resorts spokeswoman Yvette Monet said hotels are typically quiet about their surveillance procedures, especially following a robbery at the Bellagio that left a cage teller in shock and the casino out about $45,000.

“These are luxury resorts,” Monet said. “We don’t want people to feel like they’re being tracked and cataloged.”

Jennifer Lynch, a facial recognition and privacy expert and lawyer at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco, said facial recognition could benefit casinos.

“I would think that the casinos would be disinclined to talk about what they’re doing,” she said.

“Casinos have been trying to identify card counters for as long as people have been able to count cards. If you can use a computer to do it with facial recognition, then it is more efficient.”

Card counting isn’t illegal in Nevada, but casinos can ask a player to leave the premises if they are caught.

Griffin said she understands facial recognition’s potential value for surveillance but reiterated that it’s still challenging to use it in a casino.

Yet technology progresses. So, Griffin and Whiting said they will look for ways to implement improved computer vision.

“You can’t beat a live person who has a knowledge of faces, and that’s basically what we depend on — knowing faces,” Griffin said.

“I cannot lie — it’s a very interesting job. One of these days I’m going to be terribly bored.”

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