- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 27, 2003

It’s getting so you can’t even play a hand of blackjack without being electronically watched and having your style of play analyzed by a computer hooked to an alarm system.

I was online recently when a friend instant-messaged me about MindPlay.

This is a company that wants to help casinos catch card counters.

Card counters are people who beat the casinos at blackjack by being smart. They watch and remember all the cards that have been played to improve their chances of winning.

If you were in a one-deck game, needed a four to make 21, and knew that all the fours had already been dealt, then you would know that you weren’t going to make 21. You would bet accordingly.

Casinos don’t like card counters. They carry off money.

Over the years I’ve read of various attempts to catch them, from casino employees with photo albums to face-recognition systems using cameras and computers. MindPlay has a better idea, and it gives me the willies: A bunch of cameras watch all the cards.

Cameras can do this because the cards will have their values written in ink visible to the cameras but not to the human eye. (The first person to find a way to read those numbers undetected is really going to make a killing.)

The computer watches the players, all their cards and the bets they make, and looks for patterns. Mathematically, when certain cards have been played — lots of high cards, or lots of low ones, for example — it is advisable to bet in certain ways. Card counters do this.

Now, it isn’t clear to me why people shouldn’t count cards that are visible to everyone in the game. But that’s not a technological question.

The interesting thing here is that the burgeoning surveillance industry is now starting to watch for behavior, not just things. It is one thing to have cameras with human operators watching you in department stores so that you don’t shoplift.

Automated face-recognition (if they ever get it to work well) is a bit spookier: It knows who you are, not just whether you are shoplifting socks, and doesn’t require humans, so we can do lots of it.

But when computers in public places begin analyzing behavior and then calling the cops, we’ve taken a large step forward. Or in some direction.

A few months back I wrote about a British outfit designing an airline seat with an array of pressure sensors. The idea is to see whether you might be squirming in your seat, an indication of possible terroristic intent.

Of course it might also indicate that you are afraid of flying. The unsettling thing is that a machine decides whether you will be interrogated by a sky marshal.

The same is true of a gambling-pattern analyzer. Arguably it doesn’t matter much in a casino: You can always just not gamble. But your behavior is being monitored electronically nonetheless, and the computer decides whether to send an alert.

The data mining that the Pentagon wants to do, purportedly to look for terroristlike patterns, is similar: A computer program decides that the FBI needs to come to your house or tap your phone. A program written by… whom?

All sorts of places and things can be monitored. If you go to the bathroom more often than some guideline, are you a potential pervert? If you stay longer than most people in a Metro station and look nervous, are you suicidal? If your voice indicates stress when you enter a federal building, are you a terrorist?

A silly worry? The technology to do these things is booming, with lots of federal funding. We live in a country in which a little boy who points his finger and says, “Bang!” will be tossed out of school. Detecting terrorists has become an industry, and Congress isn’t keeping an eye on this stuff.

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