The Hamilton Spectator
Wednesday, Jannuary 17, 2001

Smile when you bet, your privacy is gone

by Robert Howard.

OPP Detective Superintendent Ken Smith is right when he says it's well known that casino patrons are monitored by video cameras. Gamblers would have to be totally oblivious not to be aware they are being constantly watched. Casinos use video surveillance to watch for cheaters and crooked dealers, for pickpockets and scam artists who might steal patrons' money before they have a chance to lose it at the tables. Surveillance is taken for granted by most casino patrons.

Smith was commenting in yesterday's Spectator story that revealed police have been secretly scanning the faces of customers at all Ontario casinos for matches with criminal mug shots in a special police database. He says patrons' knowledge of monitoring means there is "no reasonable expectation of privacy in any way".

Who decided that? Did the provincial cabinet decide that making a legal bet was a tacit agreement to have our faces entered into a police database? Have the courts ruled unbeknownst to us that if we gamble, if some unknown person finds us suspicious, we surrender our privacy rights?

Did the OPP blithely ignore the privacy issues or did senior officers decide that they did not apply?

Despite Smith's claim otherwise, when people make a legal bet in Ontario, they do not automatically consent to have their faces scanned for comparison with a mug-shot database.

And while casino patrons may know that casinos are watching them and that, by and large, it is done to keep gamblers and employees honest, they haven't known until now that they were also being watched by police or that the "biometrics" of their faces might be stored in a database. The OPP set up its video surveillance system surreptitiously. Only police know how many faces go into the database and for how long they are kept.

The OPP says the police casino system is not linked to live criminal databases. Not now, perhaps. But since the OPP set up this database of citizens' faces in secrecy, who is to say that they won't change its uses without our knowledge, too? The OPP database is linked to a commercial network of about 120 North American casinos. The potential for misuse, especially in an industry not too far distant from its crime-ridden past, seems very real.

The OPP says the system is to help casinos keep out undesirables. Even if that is the sole purpose (and some people are understandably cynical about police motives), shouldn't that be the casinos' responsibility, not the taxpayer-funded police?

Privacy is not a citizen's privilege. It is a fundamental right that no individual, no agency and no government should be allowed to compromise without court-sanctioned cause or without our knowledge and permission.

It seems ironic that Mike Harris's government was first elected partly on his personal vow to abolish photo radar, citing privacy issues, but then allows the OPP to secretly scan the faces of unsuspecting Ontario citizens.

Copyright © 2001 by The Hamilton Spectator. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.