“We hacked the Super Bowl”

Security for the Super Bowl, held in Miami, Fla., on February 4, was so tight that no potential threat could possibly have penetrated the multiple layers of defenses surrounding the event. But, it seems, half a dozen pranksters not only penetrated the event but demonstrated that “perfect” security is impossible.

John Hargrave says he had the idea for his prank after hearing that terrorists could broadcast secret messages on national television. He would broadcast a message during halftime at the Super Bowl. Based on a prank conducted at the 1961 Rose Bowl, where unwitting cheerleaders held up cards saying “CALTECH,” Hargrave would have unwitting football fans at the Super Bowl display a message which would be seen on national television and around the world.

Prank the Monkey: The ZUG Book of Pranks

Unfortunately, the message, meant to be displayed during Prince’s halftime concert, seems to have been lost in the rain, smoke and lighting. But some people say they were able to view the message and find a secret Web address which contained a further code to be deciphered using Hargrave’s new book, Prank the Monkey, as the key. (Decoding this message is left as an exercise to the reader.)

The detailed description Hargrave gives of how he smuggled 2,350 “Prince Party Packs” — electronic necklace lights meant to be turned on during the halftime show and spell out the message — into Dolphins Stadium defies belief. Yet Rob Cockerham says he took part in the event, and has posted his own description, complete with numerous photographs, of pulling off the prank.

A few of the necklace lights were sold on eBay last month, but none are available as of this writing. If you have one, please contact me.

In a video, Hargrave explains more of how he got he, his team and two vanloads of electronic devices past security, only two days after a bomb scare in Boston involving harmless electronic lights.

Indeed, there’s been considerable controversy on the Internet as to whether this prank took place at all, since the message is almost impossible to distinguish, and Hargrave’s site zug.com has been responsible for playing pranks on the media in the past. But aside from the message not reaching every one of the 93.1 million viewers, or much of anyone viewing poor quality pictures on the Internet, it certainly seems to have taken place as described.

(YouTube videos which Hargrave says more clearly showed the message have since been taken down for copyright claims related to Prince’s concert performance.)

The mass media hasn’t reported on the prank despite knowing about it due to “national security” concerns, he says. The real concern, it seems, is that Hargrave abused a legitimate press pass in order to pull off the prank, and members of the media really don’t want to go through as much security inconvenience as everyone else, which given the state of homeland security, is bound to happen if it were widely reported.

So what’s the point of pranking the Super Bowl? The point is that nothing can be made completely secure without making it completely useless.

No system is 100% secure. In a system as massively chaotic as the Super Bowl, there are too many variables to ever fully control. All they can do is look for rogue elements, then try to subdue or remove them. But when the rogue employees look exactly like the real employees, what can you do?

We live in a zero-risk society, convinced that more security, more police, more searches, and more technology will make us more safe. This is false. As we’ve proven, even four comics and a cameraman can outwit the most tightly-controlled event in history. Everyone did their job. No one did anything wrong. But no system is completely safe.

Life involves risk.

I want to leave you with this final thought. Life is some risky business. When we cling to the illusion of security, we give up our freedom and our privacy. When we willingly remove more clothing at airport security, when we allow our government to pass wiretapping legislation, when we give them power to spy on us, we are giving away our precious civil liberties that our founding fathers earned with blood. — John Hargrave

And even if the prank never happened, which at this point is doubtful, the point is still valid.

Everything you do every day carries some risk with it. For most activities, though, we understand, accept and manage the risks, whether large or small. While people generally understand, accept and manage the risk of, say, drowing in their own bathtubs, the much smaller risk of being harmed in a terrorist attack is something Americans haven’t yet learned to understand, accept and manage.

Until that happens, we are going to continue to have the illusion of security, provided by the Department of Homeland Security, instead of the real thing.

One thought on ““We hacked the Super Bowl”

  • September 2, 2007 at 11:32 am

    What did the message say?

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