Firm sees growing market for building shields

Firm sees growing market for building shields

It looks like an entirely ordinary conference room — white walls, rectangular table, window overlooking a parking lot. But an Owings Mills company has shielded the space with a kind of electromagnetic invisibility cloak designed to protect it against hackers.

Electronic devices such as printers, cellphones and computers all leak signals — not just Wi-Fi but other telltale emissions — that hackers can use to access corporate networks or gain information about company operations.

But this room traps many of those emissions. The walls are lined with a heavy, tear-resistant foil and the windows are coated with a special film manufactured from more than 20 different metals that reduce signals. The window film also boasts glass-shattering protection and energy efficiency perks.

The features are unusual in office buildings today, but Signals Defense LLC, which sells the products, aims to make them standard fare as the corporate world ramps up defenses against cyberattacks.

"We really want to expand this and take advantage of what we think is a need in the commercial space," said Signals Defense President Todd Gardner.

Signals Defense started in 1999, when the firm helped develop the window treatment for the Pentagon to combat electronic eavesdropping. (An early gold-tinted version remains in place.)

The firm, which continues to share a patent for those films with Eastman Chemical Co., expanded amid the military building boom of the 2000s. It says its technology has been installed in more than 1,300 locations, including intelligence agencies and Fortune 100 companies.

As government spending tightened in the last few years, sales dropped and founder Deron Simpson turned to a Baltimore-area private equity firm to grow and expand into the commercial world, said Gardner. (Simpson remains majority owner of Signals Defense, said Gardner, who declined to identify the private equity investor.)

The firm, which now employs 10 people and has about $6 million in sales annually, also added to the products it sells with paint, tape and the foil, for which it signed a major distribution deal this month.

While the government has known about the threat of electronic leaking for decades, awareness of those risks is only slowly becoming more widespread. And convincing companies that the threat of electronic emissions is worth the additional expense of the materials can be difficult.

"The government protects itself and has a security posture that you don't take in your own house," said Eric Kuczynski, a vice president at Signals Defense who has been with the firm since 2005. "Explaining that ... and having a public company or a private company buy into that same security threat is a different sell."

Partially in response, Signals Defense has sharpened its pitch, emphasizing energy savings and other benefits, Gardner said. The protection from ultraviolet rays, for example, has appealed to clients with valuable art, he said. And the firm is getting an increasing number of inquiries from individuals concerned about wireless radiation.

Signals Defense is eyeing additional acquisitions, joint ventures and other products to build its capabilities as a go-to building shield contractor, said Gardner, who joined Signals Defense in 2013 after stints in the military and the marketing world, most recently at Steve Bisciotti's Aerotek staffing company.

"I want us to be known as the building shielding experts," he said. And, he added, as wireless devices proliferate and hacks increase, the pitch "is getting easier."

Gardner said his firm hopes to persuade people to develop standards for the private sector akin to the LEED environmental codes that measure buildings' energy efficiency and the government rules for building secure spaces — "sensitive compartmented information facilities," or SCIFs, as they are called.

Ryan Colker, director at the nonprofit National Institute of Building Sciences, said it's an area that should get more attention, especially as new buildings are being constructed.

"We really need to think about how to address [cyber risks] early on," he said.

The information gathered from leaking electronic signals could range from something as basic as when a building is busiest to possibly allowing hackers to re-create what employees are doing on their computers.

Several cybersecurity experts said many companies face a more immediate threat from their real estate, in the form of hacks on the growing variety of building systems — HVAC monitors, lights, phone lines — that connect to the Internet and the rest of the company's network. That was the route recently used to steal data from Target, for example.

"It's a real problem," said Jonathan Butts, founder of QED Secure Solutions, which last month presented on the issue at a workshop in Washington. "Out of the two problem sets, though, I'm more concerned about connecting to the Internet because anybody can reach it anywhere."

Many of the secure spaces in government or contractor offices are located away from windows altogether, with heavy doors, walls fortified with extra wiring bars in the ductwork to prevent people from accessing the rooms, said Richard Williamson, senior vice president for leasing at St. John Properties.

The firm, which has developed and owns more than 17 million square feet — including offices for Signals Defense — hasn't used any kind of window treatments in its buildings, but that could change, Williamson said.

"On our end, no, we haven't seen any real demand for it yet, but it's probably coming," he said. "Given the proliferation of all the cyber crimes, I certainly think it's going to be a product in the future."

Protecting against both threats likely will be important, especially as electronic and wireless devices increase, said Richard Forno, director of the cybersecurity graduate program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

"This definitely is something we're going to see more of," he said. "Wireless signals are still a huge vulnerability, and if you can block those signals for a company, for an organization, that makes perfect sense."

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