Best Defense on Super Bowl Sunday May Not Be Inside the Stadium

  • Agencies using big data to thwart attacks at football game
  • Surveillance deployed in area that protested NSA tactics

In the heart of Silicon Valley, the epicenter of resistance to U.S. spying on phone calls and Internet traffic, law enforcement has set up unprecedented digital surveillance to keep fans and revelers safe from terrorists and other mayhem around Super Bowl 50.

Dozens of federal, state and local agents are collecting data and images from street cameras, license plate readers, helicopters and mobile phones carried by police throughout the San Francisco Bay area. Ahead of Sunday’s game between the Denver Broncos and the Carolina Panthers, a custom cybersecurity platform is searching social media for keywords indicating threats and helping analysts assign risk scores to data.

A security officer watches as Denver Broncos players run during an NFL football practice in Stanford.
A security officer watches as Denver Broncos players run during an NFL football practice in Stanford.
Photographer: Jeff Chiu/AP Photo

It’s all making the big game at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California, one of the most closely scrutinized events on record, coming after the terrorist attacks in San Bernardino and Paris. The latter began at an international soccer match.

"Probably more people will attend the game and all of the Super Bowl related parties, venues and related activities than any previous Super Bowl," said John Lightfoot, assistant special agent in charge of the FBI’s San Francisco division and the commander on scene. "For that reason it is a heavily guarded event."

One-Time Cafeteria

Shifts of about 40 law-enforcement and intelligence agents are working about 8 miles from the stadium in a makeshift command center set up like the cafeteria it once was.

Casually dressed government workers hover around desktop and laptop computers on long rows of pop-up tables. There are two clusters of TV screens, each with four large flat-screen Samsung TVs that display video feeds and computer applications.

The center is powered by systems and software that automatically aggregate data from dozens of sources and use computer algorithms to help analysts make sense of the information.

"Our goal is, if there’s no threat, let people know as quickly as possible," said Mike Sena, director of the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center, which is temporarily working at the command post during Super Bowl events. "If there is a threat, show them the accurate picture for that threat. That’s where the technology is really kicking in."

Cry for Help

Lightfoot, who also oversees the San Francisco Joint Terrorism Task Force, said in an interview that he’s most worried by the potential for a lone operative to slip through the security net.

Already, there’s been one scare.

On Monday, FBI analysts learned someone on social media threatened to commit suicide during the Super Bowl. There was no way initially to know if it might be a terrorist suicide bomber like the ones who carried out the attacks in Paris in November.

Analysts used the social media account to determine the threat was made by a male U.S. citizen and to identify his location in San Francisco.

Agents found the man, who said the posting was actually a cry for help to get medical care and prescription drugs, and got him the help he needed. Although the threat turned out to be empty, it proved a valuable test of how public information, technology and data analysis are being combined to vet potential threats.

Video, Texts

"Part of it is technology and part of it is people," Sena said in an interview. "No matter how great an algorithm you have, you always have to have analysts and people who know how to review the data and make sure that it’s rated and ranked appropriately."

Software developed by cybersecurity company Haystax Technology Inc. allows analysts to view layers of data from disparate sources on a map from their computers. For the first time, the software is being provided as an application that public safety officials can use to send video, text and photos from their mobile phones, said Bryan Ware, chief technology officer at Haystax.

That data is automatically ingested into the overall system. "The field reports we get through our indicator app are gold, even the ones that say nothing is happening here," Ware said.

The surveillance capabilities have been deployed with little public input, meaning privacy and technology groups in the Bay Area haven’t had a clear picture about what’s taking place, said Chris Conley, a policy attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California.

"It’s very important to make sure that the people are safe at the Super Bowl,"
Conley said in an interview. "At the same time, we need to be sure the
technologies that are used to keep us safe don’t go beyond that and infringe on
privacy rights."

Privacy concerns include whether technology is being used to single out people
who appear to be Muslim, or if the expanded surveillance capabilities and data
collected specifically for the purpose of keeping the Super Bowl safe will
continue to be used after the event ends, Conley said.

Say Something

The command center has linked about 60 federal, state and local agencies across the Bay area, which consists of nine counties spanning about 7,000 square miles.

"It’s a geographical challenge to obtain the information -- the situational awareness -- and then to coordinate and communicate with all of our partners and disperse our resources across the Bay Area," Lightfoot said. "But we can do that here because of the capabilities that we have."

Reports of suspicious activity from the public are also an essential ingredient for security, Sena and Lightfoot said. To that end, the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center recently created an online portal that people can access using their mobile devices to make reports. It’s available at NCRIC.org.

"We need the public to say something if they see something," Lightfoot said. "We would like to disrupt lone offenders before they commit an attack, rather than respond to the attack after it happens."

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