At Super Bowl 50, fan safety starts with super-snoopy tech

The big game and all its festivities get sweeping protection, from bomb-destroying robots to software that crunches social media looking for threats.

Terry Collins Staff Reporter, CNET News
Terry writes about social networking giants and legal issues in Silicon Valley for CNET News. He joined CNET News from the Associated Press, where he spent the six years covering major breaking news in the San Francisco Bay Area. Before the AP, Terry worked at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis and the Kansas City Star. Terry's a native of Chicago.
Laura Hautala
Laura Hautala
Laura Hautala Former Senior Writer
Laura wrote about e-commerce and Amazon, and she occasionally covered cool science topics. Previously, she broke down cybersecurity and privacy issues for CNET readers. Laura is based in Tacoma, Washington, and was into sourdough before the pandemic.
Expertise E-commerce, Amazon, earned wage access, online marketplaces, direct to consumer, unions, labor and employment, supply chain, cybersecurity, privacy, stalkerware, hacking. Credentials
  • 2022 Eddie Award for a single article in consumer technology
Terry Collins
Laura Hautala
4 min read

In football, it's the job of the offensive line to protect their quarterback. At the Super Bowl, it will be up to federal agents and security specialists to guard the public from any blind sides.

As part of their work for the big game on Feb. 7, a security force is using technologies designed to look for signs of danger on the ground, in the air and over the Internet. Analysis tools are sifting through social media postings for threats of violence, while robots, choppers and an app put all the threat intelligence gathered by law enforcement agencies into a single feed.

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Security cameras in and around Levi's Stadium will be put to full use during Super Bowl 50.

James Martin/CNET

Much of the technology is running out of a Joint Operations Center running around the clock from an undisclosed location in Mountain View, California, roughly six miles from the game at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara. Nearly two dozen federal, state and local public safety agencies are working with private security experts at the center, gathering and sharing intelligence in real time.

About 1 million football fans will be in the San Francisco Bay area for the 50th Super Bowl. That scale, combined with the game's prominence, led the Department of Homeland Security to classify it as a Level 1 Special Event, a possible target for terrorism.

"We've planned for a number of contingencies and possibilities," said John Lightfoot, FBI assistant special agent in charge in San Francisco. "Doesn't mean we think they are going to happen, but we're ready."

Many countries have responded with extreme measures at similar high-profile sporting events. In 2012, the British government put missile launchers on the roofs of buildings around the London Olympics. The 2014 World Cup in Brazil brought in 150,000 security staff as well as anti-aircraft tanks and surveillance drones.

Zipping up Levi's Stadium

Not surprisingly, the FBI declined to offer details of what's planned. Even so, we do know security measures will include hundreds of uniformed and plainclothes officers scouring Levi's Stadium and Super Bowl-related events. Helicopters will hover on game day and military fighter jets will be on standby. The stadium's 600 security cameras will closely watch pretty much everything happening in the arena, while the Federal Aviation Administration is restricting flights around the stadium on game day and creating a "no drone zone" near the stadium.

Robots will also be used at the game and at events in San Francisco, ready to detect and disarm anything ranging from a backpack bomb to a weapon of mass destruction.

Inside the Super Bowl tech at Levi's Stadium (pictures)

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Away from the game, law enforcement agencies are analyzing data from phone tips, traffic reports, security cameras, officer patrols and social media for possible terrorist or major criminal activities across the Bay Area.

The agencies are working with a Virginia-based threat intelligence startup called Haystax Technology, which helped protect the previous six Super Bowls. This year's game is more "logistically challenging" than previous Super Bowls, though, since events are happening across the Bay area, which includes San Francisco, Silicon Valley and East Bay cities including Oakland and Berkeley.

That's where Haystax's software called Cal COP, or California Common Operating Picture for Threat Awareness, comes in. The software helps interpret data pouring into the operations center by aggregating information, including officer and traffic reports.

The coordinated data is displayed on a "Watchboard," a giant digital map on display inside both the joint operations center and a backup office in Virginia. The software is now processing more than 200 alerts every minute, and about 300,000 day, said Bryan Ware, Haystax's chief technology officer. Those numbers are expected to increase in the buildup to Sunday's game.

Planning for Super Bowl 50's safety began more than two years ago, after Levi's Stadium won the bid to host the big game. After hundreds of meetings, the operation officially started about an hour after last year's game ended. A small contingency of FBI personnel from San Francisco went to Arizona to review how security was handled at that Super Bowl.

One incident they reviewed was a threat on social media, and flagged by Haystax software, in which a man said he would "shoot the place up." Within an hour, law enforcement officers tracked the man down at a halfway house in another state. "Essentially, the person was lonely and wanted someone to talk to him," Lightfoot said.

The FBI is particularly worried about "lone offenders," homegrown violent extremists who are often hard to track. While the offender may tell somebody they want to carry out an attack, they may not give specific dates or times.

That's why some of the most important safety data won't come from computers, but rather from people who call in tips, said Michele Ernst, an FBI spokeswoman.

"We're doing everything we can on our end," she said."But sometimes we could use the public's help in those situations."