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Officials Remain Tight-Lipped On Complex Security At Super Bowl 50


San Francisco is, of course, the official host city for the Super Bowl on Sunday. But the game itself between the Carolina Panthers and the Denver Broncos will be played 45 miles away. It'll be in the Silicon Valley city of Santa Clara. NPR's Richard Gonzales reports that distance has made security for the game even more complicated than usual.

RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: I'm standing near the foot of Market Street in downtown San Francisco at the entrance of Super Bowl City. It's an enclosed venue occupying several blocks. It's free to the public, and inside there's music, food, drink, commercial displays and interactive games for all ages. There's hundreds of people standing in line, waiting to go through a metal detector to get inside. And outside there's police standing by, carrying high-powered rifles.

RICH ALONZO: Oh, that's good security. I love that.

GONZALES: Rich Alonzo, a retired public transit manager, and his wife, Mary Jo, are standing in line.

R. ALONZO: I hate to say we have to live like this.

MARY JO ALONZO: So they had snipers up there, too, right?

R. ALONZO: Somewhere, yeah.

GONZALES: But security is about more than officers with guns. An estimated 1 million people will descend on the San Francisco Bay area to be part of the Super Bowl festivities. The plan to protect them started more than two years ago. And today, the security hub is many miles to the south. Inside a nondescript building in Silicon Valley, six miles from where the Super Bowl will be played, there's a large cafeteria room with the window shades drawn closed. The room is crammed full of computers, screens large and small, phones, miles of wires and cables - all of the tools of a pop-up, high-tech war room for more than two dozen federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, working 24/7. Security is so tight that I was allowed to see the room, but I wasn't permitted to record any sound in the FBI's information operation center. John Lightfoot is the assistant special agent in charge for San Francisco. His description of the room is pretty technical.

JOHN LIGHTFOOT: This center has multiple high-speed, low-drag, redundant communications capabilities, where we take in information and spit it back out.

GONZALES: Lightfoot is talking about collecting and sharing everything from officer field reports and 911 calls to traffic and weather alerts, camera images and radiological sensors posted around the region, not to mention social media. Part of the job of processing all of that information comes to Bryan Ware. He's the chief technology officer for a Virginia-based company called Haystax Technologies. He's worked on six other Super Bowls. Ware says, compared with last year's game in Glendale, Ariz., this one is more logistically challenging, partly because the game will be played 45 miles away from where tens of thousands of fans will be lodging in San Francisco.

BRYAN WARE: You know, you can't get hardly anywhere in the Bay are without going through two hours' worth of traffic.

GONZALES: Ware says one of the main challenges is coordinating information between different law enforcement agencies with different chains of command throughout the region.

WARE: All those kinds of things need to be enabled much more by technology because you don't have the benefit of kind of close geography.

GONZALES: Even with all the sexy hardware, security officials stressed the need for human intelligence. That's why their mantra to the public all week has been see something, say something. FBI Special Agent John Lightfoot says it isn't the threat of a foreign terrorist attack that keeps him up at night. Something else worries him.

LIGHTFOOT: There's that one person out there who decides they want to do something, and we miss it for whatever reason - the public hasn't shared it with us or just not appeared on our radar screen. The lone offender keeps me up.

GONZALES: So far, there are no credible threats against the Super Bowl, and security officials have been noticeably tight-lipped. As one big-event security specialist puts it, plans known are plans defeated. Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Richard Gonzales is NPR's National Desk Correspondent based in San Francisco. Along with covering the daily news of region, Gonzales' reporting has included medical marijuana, gay marriage, drive-by shootings, Jerry Brown, Willie Brown, the U.S. Ninth Circuit, the California State Supreme Court and any other legal, political, or social development occurring in Northern California relevant to the rest of the country.