Enter Big Brother? Casinos Testing Facial Recognition Technologies

It’s called “biometrics”—a type of artificial intelligence that maps the features of the face with such accuracy, it not only can identify that person but detect their sexual orientation and, in the most advanced versions, even gauge their emotional state. Casinos in Macau and elsewhere are now testing the technology as a way to identify card cheats, problem gamblers and more. Does this go beyond surveillance to spying?

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Enter Big Brother? Casinos Testing Facial Recognition Technologies

In the sci-fi thriller Minority Report, Tom Cruise played the head of a Washington, DC, “Pre-Crime Unit” that was able to identify murderers—and arrest them—before they committed their crimes.

That sort of future may be closer than we think.

Last month, Macau’s Gaming Inspection and Coordination Bureau (DICJ) acknowledged that “two to three” gaming operators in the world’s top casino market are testing facial recognition technologies, presumably to identify and eject criminals, card cheats, compulsive gamblers, underage players, dishonest employees and others whose presence in a gaming hall may be unwelcome.

DICJ head Paulo Martins Chan made soothing sounds about “strictly adhering” to privacy rules, but that may not ring true in Macau, which takes its orders from Beijing, or in the market’s billion-dollar casinos, where corporate concerns have sometimes overruled privacy concerns.

Besides, in an era where cameras are always looming, is privacy becoming obsolete? These issues are at the heart of a new report, published in June in the UNLV Gaming Law Review.

The report, And the Eye in the Sky is Watching Us All: Privacy Concerns of Emerging Technological Advances in Casino Player Tracking, looks at innovations in video surveillance, biometrics and other technologies— gesture recognition, too—that author Stacy Norris said have reached “an almost Orwellian level of intrusiveness.

“With the advent of smartphones and widespread surveillance cameras” along with instantaneous social media, she contends, “no conversation or movement in the public sphere can be considered private.”

AI: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly
Speaking to GGB News last week, Norris hastened to say she is “not against technology in any way.”

“I use my face to unlock my phone—it’s a convenience. But when the eye in the sky is used to pick out individual faces instead of just recording what’s happening, I can see the line getting a little fuzzy. Where is that information going?”

Gaming expert Ben Lee, of Macau-based iGamix Management & Consulting, said it’s all too easy for such data to be misused.

“With whatever info is gleaned from AI technology, there lies the danger of some of the operators sending the information elsewhere to be analyzed, mined and extrapolated for whatever reason, whether it be database mining, looking at behavior of customers or even deeper than that,” he told GGB. “I know some of the foreign operators in Macau do export a lot of data overseas and analyze it for corporate purposes. That would contravene the privacy act in Macau, where customer information is not allowed to be sent outside the jurisdiction.”

It’s already happened, he said, citing the 2013 case in which Wynn Resorts was fined for sharing personal info about its Macau customers with the home office in Las Vegas. That data became part of the larger corruption probe by onetime FBI Director Louis Freeh against former Wynn director Kazuo Okada. “Then it was incorporated into the Freeh report and publicized to the whole world,” Lee said.

According to the UNLV study, casinos “initially began tracking players to monitor levels of play and to reward those who gambled the most money (high-rollers) at the casino. This tracking has evolved into a method of creating a personalized experience for consumers while tiptoeing around the privacy line.”

On the plus side, along with improving customer service, omnipresent, 24/7 surveillance may discourage crime, aid in the identification and prosecution of offenders, and give customers a sense of assurance. But at what cost?

According to the study, “artificial intelligence that can detect your emotions and engagement level is also being perfected in the realm of video games. Developer Affectiva has been working on technology dubbed ‘Emotion AI’ to ‘humanize technology,’ allowing it to “respond to users’ emotions in real time.”

Affectiva’s Emotion Software Development Kit “works through use of a webcam or other recording device that can ‘identify key landmarks on the face. . .then analyze pixels in those regions to classify facial expressions. … Combinations of these facial expressions are then mapped to emotions.’”

“Casinos already have databases of known cheats, but this technology can—to a certain degree of accuracy—determine that someone is homosexual,” Norris told GGB. But, she cautioned, “a camera could be pulling information that could be completely wrong and then adding it to a database.”


Dropping Off the Radar
The dilemma for Macau operators may be how to comply with the wishes of the central government while maintaining the confidence and trust of their client base, especially high-value players.

During Chinese President Xi Jinping’s anticorruption campaign of 2014-16, for example, many VIPs fled the jurisdiction to play elsewhere, and also migrated “from the VIP room to the premium mass, where players don’t have to provide identification in order to play,” observed Lee.

“With AI technology, these players will no longer be able to hide in a crowd, so to speak. So there may be a dampening effect once they realize the technology is in full swing in Macau.”

It’s not a good time for that to happen, with Macau officially in recession, he added. “VIP revenues have been trending downward for many reasons. This will add to the depressing effect on the VIP segment.”

Jane Tsai, a veteran of the Macau casino market and CEO of casino consultancy JCT Holdings, noted that the technology is already in place in gaming markets in the U.S. and the UK.

“As the world around us evolves at breakneck speed, so too must the gaming industry adapt,” she told GGB last week. “Facial recognition is coming, not just to our industry but any industry which has a purpose for it: immigration, security, lost citizens, etc. And it is being met with mixed reviews—from staunch support (on the grounds of public safety) to heavy opposition (on the grounds of violation of privacy).”

Macau is not the first Chinese city to implement facial recognition, she added; it’s commonly used to detect “social misdemeanors”—even jaywalking. And a lot of people oppose and fiercely resent it. Hong Kong protesters recently tried to pull down lampposts in the city that reportedly are equipped with the technology.

Yet at the Hippodrome in London, Tsai said, facial recognition technology has served a useful purpose, helping staffers “identify people who were self-excluded, barred, involved in serious criminality—they even went so far as to add faces of international terrorists.”

The system can also identify major players, so hosts can be notified on their arrival and welcome them with a drink.

Will the technology drive VIP players in Macau to non-Chinese markets? “Yes,” said Tsai, “but not all of them. The sheer volume of mass Chinese tourists who have yet to experience Macau is still more than enough to ensure healthy operating margins. It will just push the properties into a higher level of analysis to yield their room inventories better.

“But like it or not, change is inevitable and it is coming to Macau.”


Full Disclosure

Study author Norris agrees. “Facial recognition technology is going to be here, whether we like it or not,” she said, and advised casinos to provide “full disclosure” to the resort patrons whose visits and activities take place under that watchful eye.

She suggested that operators must be willing to draw a bright line between surveillance and snooping, manipulation, and worse. And they must commit to staying on the right side of that line.

The technology “could be used for good—we could recognize problem gamblers really fast, and work to prevent it,” Norris said. “Or it could be used for bad—we could recognize problem gamblers really fast, and feed into that.

“That’s the issue, and that’s where we have to be cautious.”

To read the complete UNLV report, visit https://law.unlv.edu/unlv-gaming-law-journal/vol9/and-eye-sky-watching-us-all-privacy-concerns-emerging-technological-advances-casino-player-tracking-1157

Articles by Author: Marjorie Preston

Marjorie Preston is managing editor of Global Gaming Business. She is a writer, editor, author and expat Pennsylvanian who now considers herself a New Jerseyan. Based on Brigantine Island north of Atlantic City, Preston has been writing about the gaming industry since 2007, when she joined the staff of Global Gaming Business as managing editor of Casino Connection.