HAMILTON -- Police are secretly scanning the faces of customers at all Ontario casinos to compare with criminal mug shots in a special police data base.
Ontario's privacy commission said yesterday it knew nothing about the practice but would investigate.
According to an investigation by the Hamilton Spectator, the Ontario government bought the face-recognition system so Ontario Provincial Police gaming enforcement teams can find criminals more easily inside casinos.
The system lets police compare images from live video surveillance inside the casino to a data base of mug shots, looking for matches.
The surveillance runs 24 hours a day at all of Ontario's commercial and charity casinos.
That means patrons of Casino Niagara, Casino Rama, and Casino Windsor, and five charity casinos in cities such as Brantford, are subject to possible face-recognition scanning by police.
According to the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation figures for last year's July-September quarter, an average of 19,638 people a day visited Casino Windsor, with 3,406,535 patrons over a 12-month period.
Casino Rama had a daily average of 16,073 patrons with 2,664,180 visiting a year. A daily average of 29,043 people visited Casino Niagara, a total of 4,795,000 in the last year.
Police say they do not need special authority to operate the surveillance system because there is "no expectation of privacy" at a casino, said Detective Superintendent Ken Smith of the Ontario Provincial Police.
"Certainly in casinos, it's well-known to the population that they're subject to video monitoring upon entry", Smith said.
"There's no reasonable expectation of privacy in any way."
Many U.S. casinos and a few in Canada use privately assembled photo databases and face recognition to monitor customers.
But this is thought to be the first time in Canada that police have used a system on casino premises to find "hits" in their own criminal files.
The OPP say they have assembled the database themselves and are only looking for people convicted of gaming offences under the Criminal Code. Such individuals can't enter casinos due to court order or probation.
Smith said the Ontario police casino system is not connected to any of Canada's live criminal databases, such as CPIC.
Police could therefore not scan a customer's face against pictures of suspects in other crimes, he said.
But the system is linked to a commercial casino network carrying mug shots of cheats, rowdies, and other undesirables.
About 120 North American casinos are online.
Police would not discuss that aspect of surveillance, but said all work is "part of maintaining the integrity of the Ontario gaming industry".
Smith said face-recognition is only an investigative tool and is "not intended to be proof of identity beyond a reasonable doubt".
Enforcement team members would approach the person or use other techniques when they get a database hit.
The OPP enforcement officers are attached to the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario, which oversees casinos.
Neither the commission nor the office of Consumer Minister Bob Runciman would comment yesterday.
Runciman's ministry, which is responsible for gaming, made the equipment purchase last year.
The company which supplied the equipment said face-recognition is used widely in the industry.
But he said only New Jersey and Louisiana have given it to police.
Casinos use most of the systems themselves.
"If you think somebody you don't want is on your premises you take one of your cameras, point it at the person, run the database and see if any matches come up", says Mike O'Dea.
O'Dea is the vice-president of Biometrica Systems Inc. of Mt. Vernon, New Hampshire, and Las Vegas.
"It uses state of the art technology to identify and compare facial configurations, based on a mathematical mapping of the contours of the face", said Smith, of the OPP.
"It's not intrusive, it's not like fingerprints, but people are very identifiable using this technology."
Biometrics have become an issue in recent weeks because the Ontario government is considering the technology for its smart card program.
"We had not heard anything about the police using this", said Bob Spence, a member of Ontario Privacy Commissioner Ann Couvakian's staff.
"We're going to ask questions."
He said it was not clear whether the Ontario law governing the collection and control of information by a government organization even covered the situation.