The head of Ontario's Alcohol and Gaming Commission says there was never any intention to let the public know police are scanning faces in casinos for known cheats.
"Given that our focus is on organized professional cheats, the less information they have about what we do and how we do it, the better", commission chief executive Duncan Brown said yesterday. Brown said facial scanning will continue at all eight Ontario casinos, and he was annoyed his enforcement team's investigative capability had been compromised by The Spectator's disclosure of the secret surveillance.
"One of our better investigative technologies is now well known", Brown said. "As a result of the publicity ... it's entirely likely that the known and professional cheats will now attempt other measures to conceal themselves and their activities."
The gaming commissioner said he believes privacy concerns are overblown because the scanning is legal and the system does not scan every person who goes to a casino, only those suspected of illegalities.
"Presuming that you are not engaged in cheating activity, I don't think you have anything to worry about", Duncan said.
But Ontario's privacy commissioner has questioned whether the use of the special police data base and face recognition system does in fact comply with Ontario law. She has launched an investigation into all circumstances surrounding the surveillance, and urged Brown yesterday at least to notify the public at the eight casino sites.
"There's no expectation of privacy at a casino, and I accept that", Commissioner Ann Cavoukian said.
"But there is no expectation of covert surveillance either. I've asked them to notify people immediately."
Brown's response was that "if the privacy commissioner has suggestions for us, we'll have a look at them."
He said the decision to bring in the system was made solely by his own executives and senior Ontario Provincial Police officers attached to gaming enforcement. There was no feeling of a need for a privacy check.
"These revelations once again raise disturbing questions whether this government can be trusted to guard citizen privacy", said Liberal Mike Colle, the critic for the consumer ministry, which oversees gaming.
All North American casinos use extensive surveillance cameras -- to catch cheaters, identify good customers, and for other purposes, and a handful use face-scanning as well. But usually the systems are owned and operated by the casinos, not by the police, and do not contain the sensitive criminal mug shots included in the system set up by the OPP. Brown said only the OPP have access to the files, which are password protected and in a secure room.
No information from Ontario files is shared with other jurisdictions and the technology "has been very helpful", although Brown would not discuss the specifics of how many people have been caught.
Cavoukian said the problem is there are too many unanswered questions.
"Are people given notice that facial scans will be taken of them and compared to a police database?" she said.
"What happens to the facial scans after they are obtained? Who has access to these scans and how long are they retained?"
The privacy commissioner was especially concerned that no one in Brown's team informed her about the project.
"I have asked the government again and again to please consult with us before launching any program that may impinge on privacy", she said as her officials met with OPP officers to begin the probe.
The Liberals want the surveillance to stop until the privacy commission completes her job, and Consumer Minister Bob Runciman provides a full report. Runciman's ministry was responsible for the purchase of the face-scanning and photo-database equipment, although he has not yet been available for comment.
"I think this is a shocking revelation to Ontarians", said Dominic Agostino, the Liberal member for Hamilton East.
"The fact that it was kept secret and only saw the light of day after a newspaper broke the story is appalling."
But Brown said his group did not believe the decision required consultation. The only thing the enforcement team changed, he said, was the way it checked faces against known criminals.
"We didn't think the shift from a hard-copy book of (photos) of known cheats to a digital database of those same known cheats represented a major shift", the gaming commissioner said. "The only difference from our point of view is that potential matches are made more quickly."