Casino surveillance: gentle big brother

Stephen Baker

I had the privilege last week of visiting a surveillance room of a major casino in Las Vegas. (Not allowed to say which) They have banks and banks of TV screens looking at the tables and the traffic of people. They have fixed cameras over every table, and tracking cameras operating within what look like black cantaloupe-sized half domes on the ceilings. They showed me how they could track one man as he wandered through the casino to the hotel registration.

At one point, they were told from the floor to study the behavior of one woman at a blackjack table. They zoomed in on her. We watched the hands she was playing. We watched her take sips from her drink and laugh with her friends. While one person watched her live, another went back and watched on another monitor every move she'd made at the table. Then he saw it. She had her cards, a black jack, and with one quick movement she upped her bet by adding another $5 chip. We watched again and again in slow motion.

At this point, they had concrete evidence that she had broken the law. A discussion ensued. Was she a pro? Was she drunk? Was it possible that she didn't know the rules? They decided she was no pro. Still, they sent a security person [Correction: pit supervisor] to talk to her as she was leaving the table. We watched. She was surprised, confused, then grave. Then he said something that put her at ease. She relaxed, smiled, joked, and then went along her tipsy way.

These casinos are giving us a preview of life in the coming age of surveillance. Increasingly our movements and gestures, online and off, will be open to scrutiny by companies and governments alike. It will be up to them to decide what to crack down on, what to let pass. In making these decisions, they'll be weighing not only our innocence or guilt, but also our happiness as customers, our ability to stir up a fuss, the cost of the public perception that they're snoops. The upshot: We won't have much privacy, but crafty governments and companies will give us the illusion we do.

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