How Secure Is All That Wireless Equipment at the Super Bowl?

The NFL has a roster of radio frequency experts to manage the 10,000 wireless devices and Wi-Fi networks at the big game in Arizona. But no wireless technology is 100 percent safe.

By Thomas Wailgum
Wed, January 30, 2008

CIO — Super Bowl XLII is just days away, and as the New England Patriots and the New York Giants make their final preparations, so does the National Football League's team of "radio cops."

The 45 radio frequency (RF) experts actually prefer to be called frequency coordinators, according to a recent article, and they are tasked with organizing the radio frequencies at NFL games. Of course, this being the biggest game of the year, the pressure to ensure smooth wireless communications at the Super Bowl is huge.

According to a recent article in NetworkWorld that details the teams' efforts, there will be 10,000 wireless devices operating on 2,000 radio frequencies in the 1.7 million square feet of space at the University of Phoenix stadium in Glendale, Ariz. An NFL wireless security team makes its efforts to control radio devices clear, posting warning signs stating that media representatives' and spectators' use of RF devices is a privilege, and any interference with authorized users could mean that officials can confiscate the equipment and evict the people using it.

 University of Phoenix Stadium
The setting at University of Phoenix Stadium. (Photo via Wikipedia)

The radio systems in play at the game are wide ranging: wireless intercom systems; coach-to-coach (press box to field) and coach-to-quarterback communications; referee mics and replay booth official transmissions; reporter and broadcaster signals; Wi-Fi systems; police and emergency medical responders; and the 70,000 fans in the stadium with their mobile devices.

But with all that complexity and wireless signals in the air, just how safe are the NFL's wireless networks, communications and transmissions? Is it out of the realm of possibility that, say, a denial of service attack or someone eavesdropping on the opponent's communications could affect the outcome of the game?

With Opportunity and Motive, Evil Possibilities?

Two things factor into the answers to those questions. First, wireless security technologies are not 100 percent effective, though they have improved immensely during the last couple of years. In the field of radio telecommunications, advances such as spread spectrum transmission technology has provided security and antijamming capabilities. On the wireless networking front, porous WEP (wired equivalent privacy) technology has been improved upon with WPA2 (Wi-Fi protected access) wireless LAN security.

And second, the attraction of the biggest stage in sports can bring out criminals and others with bad motives. With wagering on the game expected to reach $100 million, anything seems possible. "Is it possible that someone could either inadvertently or intentionally get through that [wireless security]? Yes," says Lisa Pierce, vice president in Forrester Research's Telecom & Networks research group. "This is a moving target."

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