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Casino Surveillance

Casino surveillance is on the lookout

When you roll the dice or play the slots at your favorite casino, your thoughts are locked on one thing - winning. But would your desire to win and have a good time be diminished if you knew your every move was being watched? That nearly a thousand concealed video cameras were taping your every move?

Advancements in technology have forced casinos to stay at the cutting edge of security. Those looking to rip-off casinos - the cheats and grifters - have utilized technology to improve their odds, and casinos have spent millions of dollars to stay one-step ahead. At stake in this game between the smart and the smarter is the $30 billion taken in by US casinos each year. They are rich beyond imagination and a seemingly easy target for those who are good with numbers and like a scam.

But of the 150 million people who visit US casinos each year, only about 5000 pose a serious security risk. They are the professional cheats - incredibly smart and dangerously daring. The millions, perhaps billions, spent on casino surveillance each year is ultimately for them.

Beating the house

Gambling was first legalized in Nevada in 1931 and ever since casino patrons have been devising ways to better their odds. In the early days, the methods used to beat the system were pretty basic - using fake coins in the slot machines, using phony dice so you were guaranteed to roll a certain number, distracting the attendant so you could put down a bet after the fact, or out-right stealing chips from other players. Seventy years on, the cheats have improved at their game. Computer whiz kids and engineering geniuses have come up with a clever range of devices that have allowed them to beat the house.

A case in point was the 19-year-old student from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who built a wearable blackjack card-counting computer as an assignment. He was ultimately caught-out by casino surveillance - infrared cameras picked up flickers from the concealed device, which brought security staff over for a closer look.

Other cheats have developed small devices that could be hidden in a shoe and operated by a player's toes, helping him to track cards and calculated odds in blackjack. Then there's the story of the card shark who tried to mark cards with tiny amounts of radioactive isotopes, which set off a Geiger counter strapped between his knees when the cards were dealt. Another techno-guru was so desperate to win at a poker game called Caribbean Stud, that he put a tiny fiber-optic cable in his sleeve, which allowed him to look at the cards being dealt. The images were transmitted to a waiting van outside the casino, where his cheating-buddies would check them out and then send him instructions via radio into his earpiece.

But the story that takes the cake surely has to be a South African gang who managed to walk away with $330,000 thanks to their ingenuity. The group infiltrated the factory of a playing-card manufacturer who happened to supply the local casino. While working in the factory, they inserted a small defect into the backs of the cards. Different marks represented different suits, and high and low cards - allowing the gang to know exactly what card would be drawn.

The Eye in the Sky is watching

Technology gave cheats, thieves and professional criminals the advantage over out-dated casino security systems. For a time, there was a game of cat and mouse, as the casinos tried to out-do or out-spend their sneaky-but-smart counterparts. Because of their huge spending power, the casinos have caught up in the technology stakes. The techniques utilized by casinos today are among the most high-tech available in any form of business, anywhere in the world. First there are the thousands of tiny surveillance cameras hidden behind one-way glass surfaces.

These cameras are so well hidden that no-one would ever know they were there. And even if a cheat worked out where the cameras were hidden, the casino periodically moves them to keep people guessing. Everything that happens inside a casino's walls is videotaped. And the technology that powers the cameras is now so advanced that a camera could zoom in so close that it could get a clear picture not only of your face, but of the cards in your hand.

The footage from the video cameras is transmitted to a surveillance command center - where staff can watch the action on numerous monitors. If anything looks awry, security is on to it, quick smart. Then there are the computers that monitor the action at the tables and the slot machines. If something unusual happens - someone starts winning way beyond possible odds - the computers notify security. But really, that kind of technology is par for the course.

It is the human recognition software that is really blowing the crooks out of the water. Software is already available that allows casinos to check faces and mix and match that information with retinal scans, fingerprints, voice patterns and information from digital ID cards. Say a Mr Big enters the casino - he's been there before and been busted for doing the wrong thing. In the new-millennium casino, surveillance cameras will zoom in on his face and take a shot. That shot is then run through the software, identifying the man as a known cheat. Security staff can then quickly remove him from the premises.

But the technology can also be used to impress big-spending patrons. The software will allow the casinos computers to recognize casino guests who play fair and spend the big bucks. By recognizing the people with money, casino ushers are able to offer them top quality service and special treatment from the moment they walk through the door. Free accommodation, meals and alcohol are only a small part of what can be given to these millionaires who think nothing of gambling away hundreds of thousands of dollars - sometimes millions - in one night out.

While this technology may act as a deterrent to some, to others it poses a challenge. The whiz kids and engineering geniuses will continue to develop ways to get around the system - not always for the money, but for the thrill of beating the big guns at their own game. But for the moment, the casinos are on the lookout for anyone trying to rip them off.

So next time your playing blackjack at the casino, remember to smile - because you'll definitely be caught on camera.

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