If You Go Near the Super Bowl, You Will Be Surveilled Hard
Super Bowl 50 will be big in every way. A hundred million people will watch the game on TV. Over the next ten days, 1 million people are expected to descend on the San Francisco Bay Area for the festivities. And, according to the FBI, 60 federal, state, and local agencies are working together to coordinate surveillance and security at what is the biggest national security event of the year.
The Department of Homeland Security, the agency coordinating the Herculean effort, classifies every Super Bowl as a special event assignment rating (SEAR) 1 event, with the exception of the 2002 Super Bowl, which got the highest ranking because it followed the September 11 terror attacks—an assignment usually reserved for only the Presidential Inauguration. A who’s-who of agencies, ranging from the DEA and TSA to the US Secret Service to state and local law enforcement and even the Coast Guard has spent more than two years planning for the event.
All of which means that if you’re attending the game, or just happen to be in the general vicinity of the myriad events leading up to the Super Bowl, you will be watched. Closely. The festivities started Saturday and run through February 7, when the Carolina Panthers meet the Denver Broncos at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara. Here’s a sampling of the technology Big Brother can use to surveil you during the Super Bowl in the Bay Area.
Coordination is key. The San Francisco Bay Area is a big, dense place, and the Super Bowl festivities stretch from the stadium in Santa Clara to the streets of San Francisco. The SFPD isn’t giving officers any time off. The FBI and Santa Clara police have spent months running drills in and around Levi’s Stadium, cribbing from, and improving upon, tactics other cities have used when hosting The Big Game. Major cities throughout the Bay Area spent the fall preparing for the madness, and have established coordination centers throughout the area.
“We gather intelligence, and we share information,” says Michele Ernst of the FBI. “We have our own joint operations center. We have other joint information centers in San Francisco and Santa Clara, and we’re working hard to make sure information is shared. It’s a collaborative effort.”
Officials would not disclose to WIRED exactly how they plan to keep tabs on Super Bowl 50, but privacy experts agree that given that this is an all-hands-on-deck effort, law enforcement almost certainly is using all available technology to ensure everything goes as planned.
The Bay Area already is packed with surveillance equipment installed by the government and private businesses. The hardware includes an array of cell phone surveillance devices, video cameras, automated license plate readers, and most recently, social media monitoring software. “Northern California law enforcement is always on the cutting edge of new surveillance technologies,” said Matt Cagle, an attorney with the ACLU of Northern California. “With the Super Bowl in town, I would not be surprised if many of the technologies that law enforcement agencies have purchased with federal grants are taken off the shelf and used.”
Northern California law enforcement is always on the cutting edge of new surveillance technologies. ACLU Attorney Matt Cagle
Of course, the FBI and DHS and an alphabet soup of other agencies are bringing their own equipment. Not that they’re saying anything about it. “We’re not able to speak on the technological side of what we have,” says Officer Albie Esparza of the SFPD. The NFL isn’t talking, either. Though they’d like you to. “The basic bottom line,” Officer Esparza added, “is that our best eyes and ears are the public who come and participate. If someone sees something, we are asking people to say something.”
Still, various public records provide some insight into the gear that Bay Area police use, and the surveillance equipment and software the feds use. Here’s what we know.
Tracking Your Car
As the government pointed out back in 2014, Automatic license plate readers (ALPR) are fairly ubiquitous in Bay Area law enforcement. You’ll find them on utility poles and mounted on police cars. The devices can, as the name suggests, read a plate and record the location, time, and date. This data is stored in a database, allowing law enforcement to track where you drive, how often, and how long you spend at a particular place. Over time, that information can reveal details about where you live and work, where you worship, romantic relationships, and other things. Authorities collect this information without a warrant, regardless of whether or you’re under investigation.
If you’d rather not have your face, car, and cell phone activity tracked across the Bay Area, you have only one option: Don’t go anywhere near the big game.
The devices are found in cities nationwide, including Santa Clara, as well as San Francisco, Oakland, Menlo Park, and San Jose.
Tracking Your Face and Body
If you’re going to the Super Bowl or will be in the Bay Area the week before the game, you’ll almost certainly be photographed or recorded by cameras that are monitored by or accessible to authorities throughout the region. Transit agencies and the like have cameras, of course. And there are private security cameras everywhere—a study last year counted more than 3,000 cameras in one San Francisco neighborhood alone. Many of the people who own those cameras willingly register them in a police database to make it easier for law enforcement to access the feed. If you’re at the stadium on game day, be sure to smile, because you’re being filmed and all those cameras are linked directly to the police.
Yet, it’s unclear how exactly that footage is accessed or where it’s stored. Considering the FBI is a major player in the security around the Super Bowl and information sharing is priority number one, it’s worth noting that the FBI has been working on building a large facial recognition database that the agency was hoping to have populated with 52 million images by 2015, including, according to documents obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, images taken in the field.
“With all these cameras out there, and since we don’t know the limits on information sharing between agencies,” said Dia Kayyali, a San Francisco based attorney and privacy activist. “The data could be subjected to the FBI’s biometrics technology. There’s actually no reason to think it won’t be.”
Tracking Your Phone
Bay Area police departments own plenty of fake cell phone towers designed to track your phone. These devices, often called stingrays or IMSI catchers, mimic cellular towers, tricking phones into linking to them. Law enforcement can identify cell phones within range, track their location, and access metadata about who and when you text and call. They can go so far as to capture the content of your texts and voice calls.
A state law passed in October, requires state and local law enforcement to obtain a warrant and provide notice to the identified targets before using a cell site simulator. However, the law doesn’t apply to federal agencies within California. “If there’s a state actor involved, they should be getting a warrant for sure,” Cagle said. “Whenever there’s a state-federal partnership between law enforcement, there’s a possibility that the Feds are going to want to use their own equipment.”
Given the extremely heightened state of security around the game, Kayyali notes that it’s likely the feds will make use of Stingrays when they can. “The interesting thing here is that DHS and FBI both do have policies for the use of cellular site simulators that require warrants,” Kayyali told WIRED. “But these policies are full of loopholes, and one of the loopholes is that there is a national security exception for the warrant requirement.”
“If the FBI has the technology and policy in place for how they are allowed to use it, they will use the technology to the edge of the limitation of that policy,” added Kayyali.
Even the San Jose Visitors’ Bureau plans to collect cell phone data to determine where people stayed and where they went.
Where All That Data Is Processed
All of this data almost certainly will be processed in a “fusion center,” a lynchpin in just about any massive security coordination effort in the US.
The Bay Area happens to be home to one of the nation’s largest fusion centers, the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center. Coordination is the name of the game here. Under the direction of DHS, fusion centers facilitate intelligence sharing between federal, state, and local agencies, from the NSA and FBI to the local police, all in the name of preventing terrorism.
“The DHS coordinates all the fusion centers, and that’s definitely where a lot data collected in the Bay Area will flow,” said Kayyali.
These centers support the National Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative launched in 2008 to document “observed behavior reasonably indicative of pre-operational planning associated with terrorism or other criminal activity,” commonly referred to as the “see something, say something” program.
But “suspicious activity” is broadly defined, and critics say it often amounts to profiling and stereotyping, with the potential to link innocent people to a so-called “nexus of terrorism,” which the program is designed to ferret out.
Don’t Want to Be Watched?
With deadly terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino in such recent memory, law enforcement is taking no chances with this game. If all this surveillance in the name of security makes you uncomfortable and you’d rather not have your face, car, and cell phone activity tracked across the Bay Area, you have only one option: Don’t go anywhere near the big game.