The most sophisticated operation is probably at the Bellagio, a relatively new casino where tens of millions of dollars are spent monthly in the Italianate parlors, restaurants, and shops. Images from 1,900 cameras cycle across approximately 100 video displays, which show up to 25 different views at a time. Any view can be transmitted to a quartet of oversize plasma screens where surveillance officers can get the big picture on just about anything happening in almost any area of the hotel (not suites, mind you, but public restrooms are under the eye). The cameras trained on the Bellagio's driveway can track approaching and departing vehicles as far as a half mile. About 850 video recorders tape all the action.
Usually, three to 10 surveillance experts watch the screens. "We're looking for telltale body language, for acting oddly," says Pat Fischer, the hotel's surveillance director. Giveaways include shadowing a legitimate gambler too closely (called rubbernecking); moving methodically up and down slot rows; wearing a jacket too bulky for a desert city.
Once surveillance operators decide you're worth watching, they try to figure out who you are. Facial recognition technology scans faces to see if they match computerized records of suspects obtained earlier. This sort of technology has shown mixed results in airports and public buildings, but it's a backbone of Net Vegas security. "The key is the quality of the database," says Bob Schmitt, general manager of Biometrica, a division of Viisage, the Littleton, Massachusetts, company that supplies many Nevada casinos with the gear.
Five years ago, when the first facial recognition products were introduced to gaming operators, Schmitt commissioned a private eye to gather what turned into the world's largest photographic database of known cheats and hustlers—about 2,500 records in all. That collection—dubbed the Surveillance Information Network (SIN)—is now shared among 160 casinos worldwide. A cheater spotted in one casino on a Saturday night will have his digital image uploaded to the network with an alert. (Though no casino officials will publicly discuss it, many are believed to also use the system to store digital images of known high rollers so they can be treated like VIPs when they walk in the door. "It's just as embarrassing to not recognize your best customer as it is to miss a cheater," Schmitt says.)
"As soon as we get a clean picture," says Tom Pohlman, director of surveillance at the Tropicana, "we freeze the image and map the face." If the cameras don't get a clear picture, there may be hundreds of matches, but the search can be narrowed based on profiles and behaviors—a predilection for blackjack, for example. Nailing a cheat is a lot easier than pinpointing a terrorist at an airport using the same technology, says Pohlman, because "we've got more time and the ability to search an entire database."
One of the most dramatic uses of casino surveillance systems occurred in June 2000, when a pair of armed robbers rushed a cashier's cage at the Bellagio. Seconds before the heist, a video surveillance officer had spotted a man with a gun. Via radio, the officer instructed casino personnel not to resist the robbery. The thieves grabbed all the cash and chips they could hold and ran out of the building, not knowing that their faces were being captured, their movements tracked by camera after camera as they headed for the exits. Outside, they jumped into a minivan—whose license plates were also recorded on casino videotape. "Their pictures and plate numbers were on the six o'clock news that night," Fischer says. The robbers were arrested three days later.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.