Vegas 911

A sin city programmer busted some of the biggest swindlers of all time. Now he’s helping the Feds nail terrorists.

12 min read
Jeffrey Jonas
Illustration: Brian Hubble; Portrait: Francis George

“Let me show you how I’m getting even with the universe, man,” says Jeffrey Jonas, as he darts across his windowless office near Las Vegas’s McCarran International Airport. Jonas is a lean and natty 40-year-old, dressed in a dark shirt and a flowered tie, with a shiny bald head and a neatly trimmed goatee. Though he retains the mellow surfer-dude cadence of his California youth, he burns like a man shot out of a cannon.

An entrepreneurial whiz kid, Jonas dropped out of high school to launch his own software business. He hit it big early, then figuratively and literally crashed—going bankrupt and becoming temporarily quadriplegic after a car accident—all before the age of 25. He recovered, and then some, rebuilding both his body and his business. He is now one of the major high-tech players in town.

After he had worked with casinos and detective agencies to help bust cheats and assorted bad guys, the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) approached Jonas in 1998 and asked him to speak at a conference about software that he’d developed that might also help the government detect insider threats. The Central Intelligence Agency’s venture capital funding arm, In-Q-Tel Inc., in Arlington, Va., eventually caught wind of Jonas’s wares and ended up funding his company, Systems Research & Development (SRD), in 2001. Last year, he sold the company to IBM and stayed on as an IBM Distinguished Engineer and chief scientist of IBM Entity Analytic Solutions, in Las Vegas. Now, when he’s not racing in triathlons, he’s leading a high-tech chase for Sin City’s biggest swindlers—and the world’s most wanted terrorists.

At the moment, however, he’s rifling through a file cabinet, seeking something personal: a fat, tattered manila envelope that holds his key to good karma. “This is my bankruptcy folder,” he says, squeezing together the loose papers, “I’ve had it next to me for 20 years.” Inside are the names of 56 people and organizations he promised to pay back after his company went under when he was 20. Two years ago, flush from his success, Jonas computed 3 percent compounded interest and, checks in hand, began tracking down his old creditors. “There are 11 left I can’t find,” he says with a sigh.

But, as Vegas cheats have learned the hard way, if anyone can sniff a person out, Jonas can.

Like a lot of guys, Jonas was awestruck when he cruised the Las Vegas Strip for the first time. “I thought, ‘Man, what goes on behind those walls?’” he recalls.

The year was 1987, and Jonas was driving through on his way to a Colorado rafting trip. The 22-year-old was in the throes of resuscitating his business—and himself—from the depths of despair.

He’d been fascinated by computers since he was 15 years old. As a high-school sophomore, Jonas, with his computer lab teacher’s help, created one of the first word processors to run on the Commodore PET computer, and this, ironically, brought an end to his formal education. To his surprise, the Los Angeles Unified School District bought the program for US $400, not much but enough to lead him to drop out of school and follow his dream. “I said: ‘This is my passion; this is what I’m going to do.’”

For a short while, he lived his dream, big time. By 18, he was running his own small company, Preferred Programming Services, in Santa Rosa, Calif., which designed custom inventory and accounting programs for small businesses. But he suffered from the one affliction that plagues many tech entrepreneurs: Jonas had no idea how to run and manage a business. By the time he was 20, he had declared bankruptcy. He socked away the folder of creditors, vowing that one day he’d make good. He just wasn’t sure how. “The question is,” Jonas says, “you’re 20 years old, you’re running your business out of your car, and you just went bankrupt yesterday. How do you get any new business?”

When he's not racing in triathlons, Jonas is leading a high-tech chase for Sin City's biggest swindlers—and the world's most wanted terrorists

First, Jonas made a commitment to himself: to write a detailed plan for each project before diving into it. Under the new banner Systems Research & Development, Jonas went around looking for custom software projects that were failing or had already failed. Then he made his prospective clients an offer they couldn’t refuse: for a fee of $600 per day, Jonas offered to pick up the doomed projects, with the promise to pay back $100 for every day he was late. From building a system to prioritize grants for a philanthropic fund to coding one of the first online multiple listing systems for real estate, Jonas never missed a deadline, and he was back in the black by the end of the first year.

Jonas was on top of the world again, but not for long. In 1988, a car salesman took him along for a BMW test drive and ran off the road, leaving Jonas with a broken neck. “I was completely paralyzed,” Jonas says. “The doctors didn’t know if I’d walk again.” But once more, Jonas defied the odds and limped out the door 18 days later to spend four months in rehab. “My life has been a series of miracles,” he says. And he headed for the miracle town: Vegas.

After building a database to keep track of a million dollars’ worth of fish in the MGM Mirage Grand Hotel and Casino’s gigantic aquarium, Jonas got tapped to help the casinos tackle a more daunting problem: how to keep out the bad guys. There was much at stake. A casino can lose its license if it’s found doing business with anyone the Gaming Control Board has put on its exclusionary list. The problem is that casinos can’t always figure out who is naughty or nice. Back then, there was simply no existing database program that could help them. As a result, casino security employees were leafing through mug-shot books by hand, trying to ferret out crooks on their own. It was time-consuming and inefficient. Jonas designed a solution—and proceeded to build a complete system in just 90 days.

The technology became known as NORA, short for Non-Obvious Relationship Awareness. NORA uses industry-standard relational databases that organize data into rows and columns for cross-referencing. As Jonas explains, there are essentially three piles of data for the casino to wade through: known cheats, ordinary players, and casino employees. Simply putting the three sets of data into three separate databases would make it difficult, if not impossible, to determine when and if any parties were colluding.

Instead, NORA ingests data from different data sets in multiple databases and combines them into one database using eXtensible Markup Language (XML). Whereas XML’s predecessor, Hypertext Markup Language (HTML), identifies and codes a document’s basic style elements such as an article’s <title> or a <table>, XML lets programmers categorize and code not just those style elements but also items such as dates, prices, names, and locations.

Working in real time, NORA receives XML records from source systems and determines how these records are related to previously observed records. The benefits of this real-time processing allow the system to indicate when, for example, someone tagged as an excluded person makes a hotel reservation. More important, NORA can indicate whether people are who they say they are, as well as who is related to whom, even when they try to mask that information.

NORA, now marketed as IBM Relationship Resolution, begins processing by analyzing, categorizing, and notating—or standardizing—the data elements found in each record. For example, the names “Ricky” and “Dick” are noted to have the same root, “Richard.” The program can compare addresses with postal base tables, in much the same way as direct marketing organizations ensure that addresses are valid. Records can also be enhanced by, say, adding latitude and longitude based on the street address. Once the record has been standardized and enhanced, the program evaluates the similarities and differences among entities—usually people or organizations—to determine if they are the same. For example, Bill Smith and William Smith at the same address and phone number might be identified as the same person, unless their dates of birth were different, which could indicate a father and son. After identities are resolved to determine who’s who, the program shows how identities are interconnected.

As Vegas cheats have learned the hard way, if anyone can sniff a person out, Jonas can

In NORA’s case, key data—Social Security numbers, names, birth dates, addresses—are recognized as features. By analyzing and matching these features, connections are made that might otherwise escape casino security staff. For example, when someone is employed as a dealer, NORA could take that individual's personal information—Social Security number, address, and so on—and compare it with other individuals’ records. Also, because crooks often use different identities, NORA’s meticulous cross-referencing means a casino won’t miss Billy the Kid, Social Security number 555-55-4124, date of birth 11/6/50, when he identifies himself as The Kid, 555-55-2144, 6/11/50. “That’s a different way of discovery,” says Jonas. “It’s valuable for [catching] people who are morphing identities.” The end result might reveal that, say, the blackjack dealer’s roommate is the leader of the biggest card-counting team in the country.

It was a no-brainer for the casinos; many of them have signed on, for a fee that Jonas declines to reveal. Meanwhile, Jonas has been fostering a related business with Griffin Investigations Inc., a detective agency that protects casinos from cheaters.

It’s a clear blue morning over the fountains of Las Vegas, but the gamblers dripping with diamonds and hair gel at the Bellagio are happy to stay inside. Like every other casino in town, the Bellagio is meticulously built to keep them there. There are no windows in the gaming area, no clocks, nothing to distract them from the business at hand.

But while the players are keeping a close eye on their tables, soccer ball­size black bubbles on the ceiling are keeping an eye trained on them. The bubbles contain standard analog video cameras—2000 of them spread around the property—that record the gamblers’ every move. The cameras connect to a small room lined with video monitors several floors above the Bellagio’s tables and slot machines. All casinos have security rooms like this, though it’s rare that anyone outside the staff gets behind their closed doors.

As Kyle Edwards, vice president of corporate security for MGM Mirage, which owns the Bellagio, makes the rounds there, one black-and-white monitor shows a mustached man in a fedora playing roulette. Another screen shows a pack of twenty-something guys in backward baseball caps at a craps table. Edwards’s half dozen operators in the room are watching for telltale signs: a card counter signaling a friend at blackjack, a slot cheater fidgeting with a machine. “It’s difficult to keep track of the several thousands of people running around this industry and cheating,” Edwards says. “It’s a big problem.”

It was to solve this problem that Griffin Investigations and later Jonas went into business in the first place. Beverly Griffin and her ex-husband Robert R. (“Bob”) Griffin, a former cop, started their detective agency in the mid-sixties, back when Vegas was still a mob town and crooks were rampant. “They’d switch cards, bend cards, mark cards, switch decks with the dealer,” Beverly recalls, “whatever they could do.”

At the time, there were no black glass bubbles in the ceiling. Surveillance meant someone trolling a catwalk that ran over one-way mirrors in the ceiling. Bob Griffin, who knew his way around town, saw a business opportunity to create a detective agency specializing in apprehending cheats. The Griffins’ first client: Howard Hughes, the reclusive billionaire who had been buying up casinos all over town.

With two detectives on staff, Griffin Investigations hit the pavement, working the casinos and their contacts for information on cheats and card counters. Running the business out of their home, the Griffins kept their records on index cards, detailing the name of the suspect, the date, the location; they even had mug shots and surveillance photos. Before long, stacks of cards climbed toward the ceiling. Virtually every casino in town got on board, paying a monthly fee for access to the “Griffin Book,” as the catalog became known; others paid an additional fee for Griffin to perform supplementary walk-throughs of the casinos’ gaming rooms.

The casinos analyzed data the old-fashioned way. Griffin Investigations would fax updated sheets of suspects to the casinos every 30 days. When the casinos needed to exchange information with each other, they’d fax over the sheets, which invariably came through the machines like muddled messes. Finding information on a suspect meant fast-forwarding through hours of videotapes and flipping through pages of notebooks. By the time security staff found someone in the Griffin Book, that person could be long gone, busting slots clear across the country.

So in 1994 Beverly Griffin put the word out for someone who could bring the business into the 21st century. Jonas answered the call, and six months later, he churned out GOLD (Griffin On-Line Database), the online database that put the casinos—and Griffin Investigations—back in the game.

Originally written in the Clipper database development language and later redone in Java, the GOLD system lets a security worker instantly search thousands of photos and descriptors of slot cheats, card counters, and assorted grifters. Enter, say, “female, blonde, 35, roulette, 5 feet 5 inches” and a list of suspects fills the screen. GOLD goes one step further than NORA, because rather than just indicating relationships among people already in the databases, it can identify a person as a subject of interest without even knowing the person’s name or address.

Griffin Investigations reaped the benefits. “We went from being tough guys to becoming a real business,” Beverly Griffin says. In its most famous case, Griffin Investigations used GOLD to thwart one of the most notorious card-counting teams ever—six students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who had taken Vegas for millions. As Ben Mezrich points out in his book Bringing Down the House, the MIT card sharks could not figure out how their brand-new recruits were being detected and removed from the casino minutes after walking through the door. Soon after the house came down on the MIT team, hundreds of casinos around the world were paying the $700 annual fee for a subscription to GOLD.

Jonas’s successes led him to the biggest player of all. After he addressed the NSA conference in Washington, D.C., in 1998, an official pulled him aside and told him: “The technology you’re using here [in Vegas] is more sophisticated than what we have.” What made Jonas’s work on NORA so special, the Feds knew, was its ability to take disparate data and connect the dots in real time.

NORA might find, for example, that two foreigners attempting to get U.S. visas had lived with a known terrorist at separate times or that two records really referred to one man, despite the person’s attempt to disguise his identity. It was just this sort of subterfuge that enabled some of the hijackers to evade detection before they commandeered airliners on 9/11. Had NORA been in use, it might well have stopped them.

Soon after Jonas’s presentation, the CIA’s investment arm, In-Q-Tel, bought a piece of his business for an undisclosed amount. Jonas counted the deal a tremendous personal and professional milestone. “It was unbelievable,” Jonas recalls, “I’m just a regular Joe from Las Vegas, and here you have people who are protecting the country saying, ‘Gee, this is neat stuff!’” Even better, In-Q-Tel wanted to fund Jonas’s future work on NORA, with no strings attached—any improvements could go straight into the commercial product.

After 9/11, Jonas saw the true power of his contribution. “From time to time I’ll get a call where they say, ‘You should be a proud American.’”

It’s high noon in Las Vegas, and Jonas is burning down the Strip once again. This time, he is making his way between meetings under a new banner: IBM. In January 2005, Jonas sold SRD to Big Blue and stayed on as chief scientist. From his days back in high school, he says, his biggest fulfillment was always drawn from the creative side of his job. And now, with someone else running the business, he can hunker down to do what he loves best.

He and his team are currently working on upgrades to IBM DB2 Anonymous Resolution, previously known as ANNA. A more sophisticated spin on NORA, ANNA, in Jonas’s words, “anonymizes” data before it is shared and analyzed. “It’s a new way to find a few bad guys without shaving down the Constitution at the same time,” he says. He also works on data privacy issues with the Task Force on National Security in the Information Age, run by the Markle Foundation, in New York City, and with the Center for Democracy and Technology, in Washington, D.C.

An ANNA-based program uses a proprietary algorithm to encrypt a string of input data into numbers that are meaningless to the uninitiated but readable to those with access to a confidential database. Attached to each anonymized value is the pointer to its data source—saying, for instance, that record 123 resides in database ABC. The idea is for the owner of data, say a government agency or a cruise line, to apply ANNA’s anonymizing algorithm to its data. The owner then sends the anonymized data and pointer references to the Anonymous Resolution engine, the heart of the ANNA technology, which could be hosted by a trusted third party. Typically, the third party hosts a database that contains anonymized data from several owners. The Anonymous Resolution engine will automatically compare anonymized data as it is updated in real time. A government analyst will receive an alert when, for instance, record 456 in his anonymized terrorist watch list, stored in the same trusted third-party database as the cruise-line passenger data, matches record 123 owned by the cruise line. If the analyst wants to learn more about the actual data record, he must obtain a court order instructing the cruise line to turn over that specific record [see diagram, "Anonymous Matching”]. Over the last three years Jonas and his team have built this new technology and filed for several patents. Jonas claims that IBM is the first company to market a technology that enables data to be anonymized and then evaluated for similarities, differences, and relationships.

The government could use ANNA, Jonas says, to look for the bad guys before a cruise ship heads off to sea. The government watch list of individuals who should not be granted entry into the United States could be anonymized and then distributed in a way that protects the sensitive data from being released. The only thing the government would know is whether, and when, a match on known terrorists—or people connected to them—has turned up. In this scenario, the government would know what records to subpoena.

Corporations that want to transmit sensitive customer or employee information but wish to reduce the risk that the data might escape unintentionally could also apply ANNA.

The technology isn’t being suggested as a way of circumventing laws, Jonas says. “We’re suggesting that if they’re sharing sensitive data, this technique allows them to do it in a way that reduces the risk of unintended disclosure.”

Jonas estimates that he now spends more than 40 percent of his time working on technology that has privacy-enhancing aspects as well as on writing policy papers on responsible ways to think about accountability and oversight. “I seem to be hyperfocused on catching a few bad guys and no more, in other words, ensuring the net is not cast so wide as to infringe on the rest of us,” he says.

And while Jonas continues to perfect ways to find people who don’t want to be found, he’s still on his own personal mission: to track down the last 11 people on his payback list. If any of them are reading this story, he says, they know where to find him.

About the Author

DAVID KUSHNER, a journalist in New Jersey, is the author of Masters of Doom (Random House, 2003). His latest book is Jonny Magic and the Card Shark Kids (Random House, 2005).

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