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Super Bowl 50: Security is Strongest Ever

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By Glynn Cosker
Managing Editor, In Homeland Security

The Super Bowl always brings with it a need for heightened security, but this year there is an added emphasis. The San Bernardino shooting – the worst terror attack on U.S. soil since 9/11 – along with the Paris attacks and a growing ISIS-related terror threat, has hastened in a new era of security surrounding major sporting events.

While there is no credible threat of terrorism during Sunday’s game, law enforcement and public safety officials are calling Super Bowl 50 the most highly guarded sporting event in U.S. history.

Super Bowl 50 takes place on Sunday, Feb. 7 at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., some 45 miles away from bustling downtown San Francisco. Local, state and federal agencies are reinforcing security measures in anticipation of the big game between the Carolina Panthers and the Denver Broncos. The men and women in attendance not watching the game will be vital to a safe event.

An estimated 1 million football fans will descend upon the San Francisco Bay Area this weekend, in addition to the millions of people who already live there. Street parties, celebrations, and other festivities are all planned in and around one of the largest metropolitan areas in the United States. It’s that kind of magnitude that prompted the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to classify Super Bowl 50 as a ‘Level 1 Special Event’ i.e., a possible terrorism target. That means the implementation of multiple, coordinated tactics including explosive-detecting measures, a SWAT team, undercover agents, and even simulated airspace intrusions by the U.S. Air Force. And, that’s just the beginning.

“We’ve planned for a number of contingencies and possibilities,” stated FBI special agent John Lightfoot. “Doesn’t mean we think they are going to happen, but we’re ready.” The FBI is staffing a special command post outside Levi’s Stadium comprised of 60 local, state and federal agencies. All mass-transit hubs in and near San Francisco also got a major security upgrade this week with DHS and TSA agents (armed with rifles) patrolling transportation facilities.

Security above the stadium is just as strict as on the ground. The FAA is restricting the airspace surrounding the stadium and is enforcing a strict ‘no drone zone.’ Anybody who believes it’s humorous to fly a drone near the game on Sunday will see his or her drone destroyed and will face possible jail time. Drones have descended into other U.S. sports stadiums, often to the embarrassment of local law enforcement.

The Paris Terror Attacks Began at a ‘Football’ Stadium

Soccer, that ‘fifth’ national sport that Americans either love or hate, offers a cautionary tale for security experts at Super Bowl 50.

On Nov. 13, 2015, three explosions, two of which can be heard in the video below, disrupted the soccer game between France and Germany at the Stade de France in Paris:

The French and German crowd is heard yelling an ironic cheer after each loud bang, unaware that two of three suicide bombers just killed themselves outside the stadium. Had the terrorists made their way into the facility, the yelling would have taken on a much more grisly and horrific tone. It turns out that’s exactly what the terrorists wanted to do – in order to kick off what turned into the worst attack in Europe since World War II – the Paris Terror Attacks that killed 130 people.

A simple pat down from an astute security guard prevented the first terrorist from getting into the stadium where he intended to detonate his vest. The plan was for the other two suicide bombers to lay in wait outside the stadium for the subsequent fleeing fans. Is such a scenario possible at the Super Bowl? The answer is yes, it’s possible at any football game in fact, or any U.S. sporting event for that matter. However, terrorists know that the biggest impact and national outrage would follow an attack at the biggest sporting event in the country. That’s why the security at this year’s Super Bowl is unparalleled. It’s a daunting task that requires the latest and newest techniques.

Super Bowl 50 security
The scene in Paris after explosions were heard outside a soccer stadium

The Silicon Valley Super Bowl

One might argue that a lone security guard patting down a spectator at a game isn’t very high-tech, but perhaps that’s exactly what the people in charge of security at the Super Bowl should be focusing on. And, they will – along with using some savvy new technologies developed by companies in nearby Silicon Valley. A few tech agencies are supplying new gadgets and software including a data collection program that gives security personnel a thorough overview of everything occurring near the Bay Area by combining live video transmissions with agency cell phone and radio communications – and displaying it all on a giant digital screen for officials to monitor. It’s this kind of integration of data that makes Super Bowl 50’s security unprecedented.

One of the dozens of agencies monitoring activities at the Super Bowl is the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which works closely with Silicon Valley tech firms to develop new security tools.

“We can put eyes on anyone within the 30 nautical-mile radius in a pretty short amount of time,” said CBP’s John Priddy. In fact, CBP’s video cameras are capable of seeing even minuscule features on the face of any person near Levi’s Stadium. Additionally, CBP has installed a giant x-ray machine to scan anything arriving at the stadium for radioactive material, and the agency is working alongside the DHS to monitor the risk of a biological or chemical attack.

Ultimately, security measures range from the top levels of the U.S. government down to the boots on the ground of local security and law enforcement officials – to even a vigilant private citizen who reports something suspicious.

The Best Super Bowl Outcome: Safety

Regardless of who wins the big game on Sunday, the safety of everyone is paramount. It’s clear that proactive security is the best approach. Surveillance, monitoring of communications, and plain old-fashioned detective work all come into play, and each is vital to ensuring that Super Bowl 50 makes headlines for all the right reasons – a Panthers’ win.

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