The Hamilton Spectator
Tuesday, February 27, 2001

Casinos face ruling

Must tell patrons of face-scanning

by Joan Walters,

Ontario's privacy commissioner says casinos must tell patrons they could be subject to face-scanning by police.

Privacy watchdog Ann Cavoukian ruled yesterday that face scans by Ontario Provincial Police are a legitimate law-enforcement activity at casinos to help catch cheats.

But the controversial face-recognition may never be used in secret. <> Ontario law requires notification to the public when personal information is being collected, along with instructions on how to access your file.

Cavoukian launched an investigation after The Hamilton Spectator reported the OPP secretly scans faces at all Ontario casinos for match-ups with criminal mug shots in a special database.

A second report by The Spectator triggered an inquiry by Canada's privacy commissioner into RCMP use of face scans at Pearson Airport. That investigation is still under way.

The Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario, which oversees the eight casinos where the scans are done, said it will comply with Cavoukian's ruling on public notification.

"We will be dealing with the casinos and working out some type of graphic suitable to meet the request of the privacy commissioner", said Ab Campion, a commission official.

Current signs only say patrons may be subject to video surveillance.

The OPP and commission originally said they did not have to tell patrons about the controversial system because there is no expectation of privacy in a casino.

But Cavoukian said no one expects to "surrender complete control over their physical autonomy and personal information when they enter a casino".

"There are strong reasons for requiring government institutions to provide notice if they are surreptitiously using biometric technologies to capture personal information", she said.

The OPP may temporarily store images of a person under investigation, for example, even though the person is never proved guilty.

No information is kept of a scanned individual found not to have done anything wrong. But the public should know data could be collected, she said.

Many U.S. casinos and a few in Canada use private photo databases and face recognition to keep undesirable customers out and identify good ones.

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.

Cavoukian said the OPP do not scan everyone who enters a casino, only suspected cheaters. About 200 images were on file in the OPP casino system at the time of her investigation this month.

The OPP compare images of suspects to their own database of cheats convicted in Ontario. They also look for matches in a continent-wide system run by the gaming industry.

Face scans are a form of biometrics, a math-based technology that identifies a person by measuring distinctive physiological characteristics, such as facial features or fingerprints.

Cavoukian said all Ontario agencies must resist the "temptation to go further with this type of technology."

"The prospect of covert surveillance encroaching into more and more public spheres of activity poses a serious threat to our fundamental right to privacy," Cavoukian said.

She cited last month's Super Bowl in Tampa, where local police, the FBI and other forces videotaped everyone passing through stadium turnstiles and secretly compared their images to a database of known criminals.

The American Civil Liberties Union has called for public hearings on the incident. It says covert use of such systems seriously jeopardizes privacy.

Privacy expert Gary Genosko said there is true risk when police do not tell the public of such surveillance.

"It's what we call function creep", the Lakehead University professor said in Thunder Bay.

"Function creep is when legitimate uses of these technologies begin to be changed and expanded and used for all sorts of different purposes than originally intended. That's a big problem."

Cavoukian said the OPP have had the face-scanning technology in place since May 2000 at Rama, Niagara and Windsor casinos, as well as five charity casinos, including Brantford's.

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