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  • Willy Allison

Optimizing Surveillance’s Role in the Twenties

This is the second of a three-part series (a “Willogy”) where I explore the opportunities for casino surveillance operations over the next decade. Part Two: Organization Optimization

What if?

I had a dream the other night. It went something like this. I was Captain Allison on the bridge of the USS Casino Enterprise. “Captain’s Log, Stardate 12.31.2029: As we get closer to our final destination of the year, planet Double-Digit Growth, we have successfully managed to stave off numerous attacks from the forces of evil, discovered new planets in our galaxy and managed to convince a number of beings from the planet Disposable Income to join us on our mission.”

Then forces of evil started firing at our starboard side. Instantly my team of well-trained experts, each with their own special set of skills, sprang into action. They swiftly determined the threat and using state-of-the-art AI technology (custom-designed for their mission) located the culprit. I then gathered a small team of highly motivated individuals together and headed to the transporter room. Within seconds we were transported to a planet on the dark side known as Scum. We quickly located the predator and exterminated the threat. Mission completed - “Beam me up Scotty.” The dream ended.

What if casino surveillance departments were more like the USS Casino Enterprise?

Star Trek dreams aside, I believe casino surveillance has the potential to become the most valuable department in a casino organization. Actually, I always have. What makes me even more sure is the emerging development of AI-based software and the ability to interface it with surveillance cameras.

Instead of being perceived as a necessary but costly means of providing protection, casino surveillance operations could become a reliable source of intelligence to casino executives. They would drive innovation by providing data to improve business practices and increase profits. Surveillance could provide a constant flow of information to drive daily decision-making across the organization.

Imagine getting an automatic alert in Surveillance that a man on a BJ table is card counting. Imagine getting an alert that a man with rose colored glasses is marking cards on three-card poker. Imagine getting an alert that roulette table number four has a wheel bias. Imagine getting an alert that someone is laundering money through a slot machine. Imagine getting an alert that a man who has been loitering near the cage has followed a player (who just cashed out over $5,000) out of the casino. Imagine getting an alert that a dealer just stuffed a $500 chip in his sock.

It’s not inconceivable. Computer vision and machine learning technology is emerging as a powerful tool that will enable us to automate surveillance.

But let’s take it to another level. What if you had a small team of experts in Surveillance that could answer questions like why did we lose money last night? Why is the high-roller winning so much? Why is the average WPU (win per unit) down on our baccarat games? Why is the new table game we’re trialing not making as much money as we thought it would? Are the layouts of the tables and slot machines right? Should we have more craps tables? Who are the best dealers to optimize revenues on specific tables? What effects do the new side bets have on the game? What procedures can we modify to get more hands per hour? Why is the hold percentage down?

Monitor and Report Mindset

To make the USS Casino Enterprise a reality there will need to be some big changes to the mindset of casino executives and regulators. I’m pretty sure executives would be hip to the idea given the major benefits. It’s the regulators that may have a problem. In most regulators eyes Surveillance is there to focus on game protection. I agree it should be a priority. One of many. But I believe AI technology will provide a more efficient alternative line of defense against cheating, theft and advantage play. There’s no reason Surveillance can’t learn how to brush their teeth (look for business opportunities) and chew gum (provide security) at the same time.

The casino surveillance model of “monitor and report” dates back to the mid-70s when casinos introduced manned surveillance operations, shortly after video recorders came onto the market. The model was simple: find some people who knew the games, preferably with knowledge of ways the games can be cheated. Get them to sit in front of a monitor in an isolated, confined room and if they see any funny business - let the boss know. Casinos video recorded as much as they could which would inevitably serve to benefit regulators immensely. They knew they could call on the video room guys to get them a tape if they needed something. What’s changed since then? Outside of the technology and getting rid of cheats working for Surveillance, not much really.

In my opinion, the old surveillance model of monitor and report is outdated. It relies on the theory that people monitoring the cameras know what they’re looking for. Do they? Regulators around the world mandate that casinos have comprehensive camera coverage of all areas in the casino but they don’t mandate that people responsible for watching the cameras have comprehensive knowledge of what they’re watching. They require detailed drawings and documentation of camera designs but they don’t require detailed training, testing and credible qualifications for people watching the cameras.

Many surveillance managers might believe the monitor and report (watching and hoping) model is proactive. I was one of those managers once. But in recent years I’ve changed my thinking. I don’t think having a team of people all watching cameras without any direction or guidance is proactive. I think studying the current threats, putting preventative and detection measures in place, comprehensively investigating suspicious activity, eliminating threats and discovering new opportunities for the business is proactive.

The Optimum Surveillance Operation

With the advent of AI technology and the automation of casino monitoring, I see Surveillance being able to increase investigative reporting and add more value to the organization.To achieve this goal the department will have to reorganize priorities, modify their organization reporting lines, upgrade job descriptions and responsibilities and set out to change the mindset and perception of the the role of Surveillance within the organization.

My optimum Surveillance operation (USS Casino Enterprise) would look like this:

Live Response Team

The Live Response Team will operate 24/7 in the monitor room, as they do today. The difference would be that the majority of actionable intelligence obtained will come from AI technology instead of watching cameras or receiving tips from the floor. The team will be responsible for responding to real-time automated AI-based alert stations and CCTV interfaces by using the cameras to get a better look at the situation. All undesirable activity will be reported and given a priority, from “urgent” to “requires follow-up.”

Probe Team

The Probe Team will be made up of investigators, analysts and auditors. The analysts will be responsible for interpreting data from systems across the organization and detecting threats as well as business opportunities. The investigators will be responsible for criminal investigations involving fraud and collusion in the casino. The auditors will be responsible for regular operational audits.

Risk & Compliance Team

The Risk & Compliance Team will be responsible for observing and reporting any violations or suspected threats of non-compliance of regulations and laws. They will also be responsible for reviewing and investigating customer and employee claims of unsafe practices. This team will work closely with regulators, legal, risk management and compliance departments.

Technical Systems Team

The Technical Systems Team will be responsible for the maintenance and development of the CCTV system and other AI-based technologies and interfaces used by the department. The team will be divided into three groups responsible for hardware, software development and networks.

Training and Development Manager

The Training and Development Manager will be responsible for training new employees and the career development of all staff. This person will oversee internal human resource functions such as recruiting, individual performance management and internal promotion selection. All new recruits would be required to complete the induction training program and spend three months in the live response team. The Training and Development Manager will also stand in while other team managers are on leave.

The head of the department would be responsible for coordinating team efforts, reviewing data and information, determining what action needed to be taken, communicating and sharing intelligence with other departments and leading the operation.

How each specialized team is set up, organizationally and numbers-wise, will depend on the size and amenities of the casino resort. Some teams could create individual job functions within their team to ensure focus and accountability in one specific area. When I look at a casino’s org chart it shows me what the organization prioritizes and values the most.

The head of Surveillance should report directly to the person with the highest authority and responsibility in the casino. If the role of the Surveillance Department is to provide the casino with valuable information that may have an effect on the business goals of the organization, that information should be reported to the person that is ultimately responsible for it and is in a position to do something about it. Surveillance should always be independent of departments or bodies that have single-minded agendas and try to prioritize monitoring in specific areas of their choice. Surveillance should be free to monitor all areas using a risk-based approach.

Rebranding Surveillance

Now that we have the optimum organization in place, it’s time to rebrand Surveillance. Let’s start with throwing out the name Surveillance which by most definitions means watch. Everybody gets paid to “watch” in a casino. Surveillance does more than that. The word “surveillance” often invokes a connotation amongst a lot of staff that we are spies who can’t be trusted. It conjures up militaristic or law enforcement images of secret missions, late night stake-outs and big brother. I like Business Intelligence, or Intelligence…or simply just Intel. Actually I think it would be cool to be called the CIA (Casino Intelligence Agency) but I think that probably wouldn’t help the spy perception thing.

Let’s bring Surveillance out of the closet. Traditionally casinos have enforced a policy of not allowing surveillance people to fraternize or associate with gaming employees. I personally think a Surveillance Department can be more effective by working closer with other departments. They can learn more about how each area works and are able to keep abreast of changes it that area. This is often difficult to do by being isolated from the rest of the operation and relying on what you can see on a camera. Surveillance is often the last ones to be told of changes. Interacting with people also helps to gain inside intelligence and detect changes in flatline behaviors which may indicate fraudulent activity.

Our Vegas founding fathers were paranoid about collusion between gaming staff and “the eye.” That was probably because (as the story goes) Vegas casinos used to hire ex-crossroaders; rationalizing that it takes a cheat to know a cheat. I don’t blame them for creating the non-fraternization policy. I wouldn’t trust cheats associating with gaming staff either.

Collusion is a huge threat in gaming. However, I think that getting an employee to sign a confidentiality agreement is not really effective or a deterrent to collusion. Reports over the last decade suggest that if surveillance employees want to collude with players they do, regardless of the signed piece of paper. Over the last ten years there has been an increasing amount of surveillance employees busted for collusion with players.

I believe most of the threats and concerns of surveillance people colluding with outsiders can be reduced by, you guessed it, AI-based technology. If monitoring games was automated no one could collude without activated an alert that would trigger a response. The past has shown that almost all cases of collusion on games require a breach of procedure. Plain and simple. As an internal safeguard the threat could be reduced even more by developing a check and balance system set up to make sure all actions taken are the correct ones. AI-based cameras and microphones could also be developed and installed in the monitor room to detect behaviors and patterns that could indicate collusion by surveillance staff.

Regardless of how long it takes for the USS Enterprise to fly into your galaxy, the key to running a successful Surveillance Department is to always have a good team. A good manager takes whatever resources they have at their disposal, finds the right people and organizes them so that their talents and specific skills can make a contribution towards the overall success of the team and the organization.

When faced with new threats and an ever-changing environment it is important for managers to make adjustments to their organization to deal with the challenges. Future advancements in technology will mean skill sets of team members have to be upgraded so that the synergy between people and technology is optimized to achieve the best results possible. Maybe with the right organization structure and the right people Surveillance can go where no man has gone before.

"Things are only impossible until they're not."

- Captain Jean-Luc Picard



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