Securing the World Cup

At the FIFA world championships, those responsible for ensuring the public's safety will have a few high-tech tricks up their sleeves.

6 min read

Even if Germany fails to win the World Cup taking place on its home turf for the second time in 30 years, the country could earn plenty of recognition from security experts for making the planet’s largest sporting event one of the safest ever.

More than 3 million people will be attending the 64 games, running from 9 June to 9 July. An additional 10 million are expected to flood into the 12 cities hosting the games and other large cities to watch the competition in some 400 public viewing areas and party in the streets and pubs. Billions around the world will be glued to their TV sets watching the action.

With so many eyeballs fixated on football (or soccer as it’s called in the U.S.), this isn’t a good time for something to go wrong�like a hooligan riot or even a terrorist attack. ”There are always security risks when you have large gatherings of people,” said German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble in a televised interview.

Security threats at this World Cup are perhaps the greatest ever in the history of the competition. The country’s small but persistent neo-Nazi groups are holding demonstrations in some of the host cities to cause a stir. Hooligans from England, France, The Netherlands and, in particular, Poland, hope to knock a few heads as well. Add to this the threat of international terrorism.

Of the 32 nations taking part in the German tournament, five of them�Spain, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, the U.K and the U.S.�have suffered attacks by Al Qaeda or like-minded militant Islamists. Six more�Australia, Italy, Japan, Poland, South Korea and the Czech Republic�have major troop contingents in Iraq or Afghanistan. In total, 22 games have been identified by the Federal Intelligence Office as ”high risk.” Arguably, a football stadium packed with fans in Gelsenkirchen is, symbolically, less powerful than skyscrapers full of workers in the world’s financial capital, but one big bang could still create plenty of publicity.

Or imagine this: the U.S. and Iran, both competing in the tournament, advance far enough to meet in a match. A security nightmare? You bet, and�not surprisingly�Germany is leaving little to chance.

The German organizing committee has mandated personal identification in the stadiums. Never before have fans attending an event organized by the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) been required to provide so much information about themselves that can be accessed so quickly. All 3.2 million tickets are embedded with an RFID (radio frequency identification) chip containing identification data, to be checked against a database with personal information such as date of birth and passport number as fans pass through entrance gates. It’s the first World Cup tournament to use RFID technology to identify ticket holders, and it's not likely to be the last (even though FIFA Secretary General Urs Linsi told reporters at an earlier news conference that ”the absolute control of soccer fans is new” and that FIFA doesn’t plan to ”store as much data as the Germans" at future events).

Not only is the identification technology intended to keep extreme hooligans and other potential troublemakers out of the stadium; it’s also meant to keep tabs on those inside. ”When a flare is fired in block 17, row 12, seat 35, we’ll know immediately who lit it,” says Wolfgang Niersbach, vice president of the German World Cup Organization Committee in Frankfurt.

All the stadiums are equipped with video surveillance systems. For instance, Munich’s new, state-of-the-art Allianz Arena, which seats nearly 70 000, has an advanced closed-circuit television system equipped with more than 80 surveillance cameras so powerful that security personnel can zoom in and read the game program in a spectator’s hand. Moreover, a huge network of sensors monitors everything from fire alarms and parking spaces to security systems.

Security squads in all 12 stadiums are equipped with fast fingerprint verification systems for making on-the-spot checks of suspected troublemakers registered in police database systems. Also useful are tap-proof digital terrestrial-trunked radio (TETRA) phones. In addition to airwave security, the phones are able to block background interference�an issue at noisy football matches�so security workers can easily understand each other. The handsets are also equipped with a GPS (Global Positioning System) transceiver allowing emergency crews to be located and directed to wherever they are needed. The TETRA networks have capacity for up to 2000 users per stadium.

Dogs trained to sniff explosives are present at all stadiums, in addition to technology installed at the gates to detect nuclear materials. ”We tested the monitoring system successfully at the Olympic Games in Italy,” said a senior executive from the company supplying the technology. ”The German government hired us to install the same system for the World Cup games.”

A unit of German chemical company Bayer AG has developed a chemical that can be sprayed on rail tracks and, when controlled by an ultraviolet beam from a helicopter, reveals where tracks have been manipulated, said Christian Sachs, a spokesman with the Interior Ministry. Sachs declined to say, however, where the spray is being deployed.

As for security personnel, there’s enough to fill a couple of stadiums.  More than 250 000 German policemen are dedicated to the games, including the country’s special GSG-9 troops created after the 1972 disaster in Munich when Palestinian terrorists killed 11 Israeli athletes. Around 2000 German soldiers will be operating technical support equipment and armed vehicles, with another 5000 on standby. More than 20 000 firemen and emergency rescue workers will be on duty during the games. Approximately 15 000 security people are monitoring tickets, performing checks for weapons and other dangerous objects at the gates and monitoring fans inside the stadiums.

Some 500 police from 13 countries are keeping an eye on their own fan groups at the stadiums and public transportation areas. These countries have also sent ”spotters,” plainclothes officers who are experts on the hooligan scenes back home and will follow potential troublemakers around Germany. The U.K. alone has dispatched 40. The spotters’ presence and ability to identify fans for prosecution back home was given credit for the 2004 European soccer tournament in Portugal going off without a major incident. On top of these numbers come thousands more security workers who frisk fans wanting to watch the games in the public viewing areas set up across Germany.

At its borders, Germany is conducting checks, which it otherwise stopped doing a few years ago under a European Union agreement. In the air, the government has banned aircraft from within 5.4 kilometers of the stadiums three hours before and after each game and has authorized AWACS to provide surveillance support from high above.

Communication plays a crucial role in Germany’s security efforts for the games. Hardly a government agency associated with security has been left out of the action.  Located deep inside the Interior Ministry in Berlin is the National Information and Cooperation Center (NICC). For the duration of the monthlong event, the center will be manned around the clock by security experts from about 20 government agencies, including the Federal Office of Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance, the Federal Intelligence Service, and the Federal Office for Information Security, in addition to Europol and Interpol. It’s the first time the government has brought so many federal agencies together to collaborate on a large public event. The experts will be glued to their computer screens evaluating thousands of messages generated daily by security authorities on the ground.

Although a substantial amount of information technology is involved in gathering, processing, and delivering the information that feeds into the services of the various government agencies and international police groups organized under the NICC umbrella, the control room itself is relatively low-tech. Each of the 22 represented agencies has a terminal linked to its own communications network together with its own expert who can turn quickly to a colleague from another agency to consult on a situation and react swiftly if necessary. In addition, key data from all the agencies feeds automatically into an NICC portal accessible to everyone in the control room.

For all the time, money, people, and technology that have gone into Germany’s World Cup security efforts, the government’s program is not without its shortcomings.

Some agencies have units monitoring select groups. The Federal Office of Criminal Investigation, for instance, operates the Central Intelligence (LIZ) unit, which is focused on organized crime and international terrorism, particularly Islamic militant groups. The Federal Police Office has the Central Sports Information (ZIS) unit devoted exclusively to hooligans. This unit has access to an international database containing data on all known hooligans. Nearly 35 international police experts are assisting their German colleagues at the unit’s command center in Neuss. Ahead of the games, the U.K. already rendered a helping hand by temporarily revoking the passports of 3500 known offenders.

For all the time, money, people, and technology that have gone into Germany’s World Cup security efforts, the government’s program is not without its shortcomings, however. The nationwide police radio network is one of them. More than three years ago, the Interior Ministry announced plans to equip police with a new digital radio network, replacing an older, unsecured analog system. But a complicated tender process has delayed the contract from being awarded.

Due to the complicated structure of Germany’s federal government system, which gives sweeping powers to the country’s 16 states, no live video streams from the stadiums are allowed in the NICC control room, where federal government agents are working. Live surveillance video streams fall under the jurisdiction of the individual states, according to Interior Ministry spokesman Sachs. ”The only live feeds we’ll see are those from the TV stations,” he said.

Another security sore spot: an air attack on a stadium. Despite the airplane ban during the games and the AWACS circling above, some security experts question whether Luftwaffe pilots can scramble fast enough to intercept an airplane that decides to ignore warnings in Germany’s crowded and tiny airspace. And even if they can, there’s another problem: German law forbids civilian aircraft from being shot down. In a recent television interview, Interior Minister Schäuble indicated that if necessary, he would consider bending the law to save lives. That’s a politically explosive decision, to say the least.

So far, the games have run smoothly, and the Interior Ministry doubts a disaster, like the one that shook the 1972 Olympic Games, could happen again on German soil. ”It was a different situation back then; our security was lighter�we felt protected by our Western allies,” government spokesman Sachs said. ”Now we don’t have these allies taking care of us. The responsibility is all ours, and we’re taking it very seriously.”

About the Author

John Blau is a contributing editor to IEEE Spectrum , as well as a freelance writer based in Düsseldorf, Germany.

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