Focus on Acres: Guardian technology protects casinos against ransomware attacks

March 22, 2024 8:00 AM
Photo: Shutterstock
  • Mark Keast, CDC Gaming Reports
March 22, 2024 8:00 AM
  • Mark Keast, CDC Gaming Reports

Ransomware threats against casinos are on the rise, with high-profile attacks on hotel giants like MGM Resorts and Caesars Entertainment making the news last fall.

More and more, a priority is being placed on protecting the personal information of players, the property against disruptions in casino and hotel operations, and employees’ information. The need for better security is growing as the casino industry grows.

Las Vegas-based Acres Manufacturing has been on the forefront of technological advancements in the casino industry since 1972. Company founder John Acres has been around going back to when slot machines held motorized bowls of coins from which to pay out jackpots to players. Slot technicians would often reach into these coins and help themselves to “cigarette money”.

“Slot techs felt entitled to taking a couple of quarters from a game they just fixed to buy a pack of cigarettes.” Acres said. “Managers looked the other way because the amount taken was small and casino profits were big. Human nature being what it is though, somebody eventually took a dollar, then $10, and then $20. When managers saw slot techs walking around with bulging pockets of coins, they had to create new security policies.”

“Table games weren’t immune either. There’s the story about a dealer that slipped so many silver dollars off the blackjack table into his cowboy boots that he couldn’t walk away from the table when his shift ended. ‘Eye in the sky’ surveillance teams were created to handle this sort of problem.”

Fortunately, things have evolved since that era. Acres’ company is at the forefront of protecting casinos from fraud and theft with their new Guardian AI cybersecurity product.

“Back in the 70s, there were no computers and no networks. Each machine was its own business enterprise, and a person couldn’t steal from it without physical access. Modern slot machines are networked and potentially allowing thieves from anywhere to steal electronically.  We created Guardian to help casinos get ahead of such problems.”

Acres started his first business, Electronic Data Technologies, in 1981, which allowed casinos to track slot machine players by using loyalty cards. His next business, Mikohn, started in 1986, devised the modern progressive jackpot system where slot machine jackpots increase over time, creating excitement for the players. Acres Gaming, his third company, was a system where slot machines awarded instant bonuses based on current or accumulated play.

Acres is in the American Gaming Association Hall of Fame, and his company is now fully established as a leading casino loyalty and technology developer.

The company’s Foundation system enables cashless wagering at casinos, while also gathering real-time data on players, thereby painting an electronic picture of their behaviour as they’re playing. Foundation can monitor pace of play and size of bet, and immediately deliver bonuses, right down to a free drink – as opposed to evaluating the player at the end of each day and inviting them to come back.

Such a technology means a more seamless, enjoyable experience for players and increases a casino’s profits, Acres said. If the casino can make it so the player can stay in their seat and use their phone to transfer money as opposed to heading over to an ATM machine, that’s another friction removed. The system also helps players stay within budget and play responsibly.

“Casinos’ profits are thinner than ever, even though casino revenues are growing,” he said. “That’s because, after adjusting for inflation, gross gaming revenues nationwide are five per cent lower today than in their peak year of 2007. Casinos’ profits are thinning because costs are rising faster than revenues.”

“The future is data-driven,” Acres said. “The more data we collect and analyze, the better we can please our customers and reduce operating costs. We know that younger people don’t gamble in casinos nearly as much as their parents and grandparents did at a similar age.  Anyone that grew up with a Nintendo or Xbox wants more exciting and interactive experiences than spinning reels offer.”

“Casinos can’t afford to alienate the traditional players they now serve and are hesitant to provide the kinds of experiences younger players want. But if casinos don’t attract new players, they can’t grow.

Foundation’s data allows automated personalization of the gambling experience, giving each player the experience they want.”

Acres started developing Guardian last summer when the ransomware stories hitting casinos really started appearing. In response to data ransom attacks, casinos pre-emptively shut down floor systems to prevent theft and protect player information. After, all casinos certainly don’t want the names of their best players published. Neither do the players themselves.

“We saw the cost and inconvenience such shutdowns caused and realized we could use Foundation’s inherent security capabilities to make it harder for attackers to electronically penetrate casinos systems. But such protections are never 100%. So we created Guardian to immediately and automatically verify the authenticity of each game play or financial transaction.

“Guardian detects theft, money laundering and even abuses of loyalty programs, even as the event occurs. Guardian then blocks further such transactions and reports their occurrence to casino management for further action. Together, the inherent security of Foundation and the watchful diligence of Guardian dramatically reduces the possibility of actual loss.”

“Guardian works silently in the background,” Acres said. “Players won’t even know it’s there but thieves certainly will. And we’re only at the beginning of what’s possible. The growing capabilities of Artificial Intelligence will continue to enhance Guardian’s capabilities,” he said.

Acres says they expect to do the first rollout of Guardian this fall.