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Since the early days of the Cold War, the federal government has required secure facilities to keep national secrets safe. Private-sector CIOs and CISOs looking to build a secure building can find lessons from the feds hiding in plain sight

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  • A discussion of US federal requirements for secure facilities
  • A framework for applying US federal security standards to private-sector facilities

Secrets aren't advertised; they are protected. The US government keeps some of the biggest secrets of all — the exposure of which might pose a threat to national security — in places where the name hides nothing: a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF).

But the buildings carrying the SCIF label are made to hide everything.

A government rule called "The director of Central Intelligence Directive 6/9" details the physical requirements for SCIF construction: Walls, floor and ceiling must be permanently constructed and attached to each other. They should also be reinforced on the inside with steel plates, and slab-to-slab with 9-guage expanded metal. All doors, windows, walls, floors, vents and ducts must be protected by sound masking devices, such as noise and vibration generators, bars, grills or sound baffles, in order to meet sound attenuation criteria and prevent disclosure of conversations.

Entrance doors should be limited to one, which must be equipped with locks, doors and alarms, and made of solid wood (no less than 1 ¾ inches think) or clad with 16-guage metal (no less than 1 ¾ inches thick). And, most important of all, the building must be nondescript enough so that you can't tell what it is.

"The concept behind SCIFs was to create a secure area that had appropriate protections in place to ensure to the greatest extent possible that the highly sensitive information inside would not be compromised," sys Lynn Mattice, VP and CSO at US Boston Scientific, a manufacturer of medical devices. Mattice is familiar with the requirements around SCIF construction: As director of corporate security at Northrop during the major defence buildup of the Reagan administration, he oversaw the completion of multiple rooms built to SCIF standards. At Whirlpool, where he was director of corporate security for a number of years, and now at Boston Scientific, Mattice says he has built soundproof rooms and does sweeps for electronic countermeasures from time to time.

A company needs an area where people in upper management can securely discuss things or look at documents

Hal Walter, US University of North Carolina

While it's unlikely that the cost-benefit calculation for a private sector organization would lead many businesses to build a facility meeting all of the requirements of a government-mandated SCIF — such features can add hundreds of dollars per square metre of office space — there are lessons to learn about secure facilities from the people who construct them according to the federal government's strict specifications. Most large organizations would benefit from employing some of the requirements, says Hal Walter, a classification compensation analyst at the US University of North Carolina.

"Some global organizations today are just as large as the governments that these facilities were designed for," Walter says.

The key is to know what information is sensitive enough to require many of the same methods the government uses to guard its secrets.

Assess what you need to protect

For the past five-plus decades — think history of the cold war — the government has maintained a hierarchy of classified information, determined by the level of threat its exposure would bring to the United States.

Top Secret owns the list: its public knowledge would pose grave danger to national security. Weapons design specs and sensitive intelligence fall within this category.

Secret (the level that most classified information in the US is assigned) means if this information was leaked, it would cause serious damage.

Confidential information would harm national security if it were made public; while it's the lowest level, it is still information that the government does not want made available.

Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI) refers to the security, wrapped around access to this classified information — not the information itself. SCI is often loosely applied to describe all sensitive materials, and that's not correct, says Ben Shaw, facilities security officer (FSO) at advisory Morgan Franklin. "People use it as a blanket term," he says, when in fact, it's more like an extra layer of security, usually applied to special access programs or special government projects.

For example, the Department of Defence may want to limit access to sensitive information about a particular project so only people working on the project have access to that information (which would be maintained within a SCIF). There is no universal SCI clearance (as there is for Top Secret clearances) because an SCI access authorization is related to specific programs or information. Mattice says that before you even go through the clearance process, a contract sponsor from the government will certify that you "need to know" SCI level information. "Most SCI access authorizations require one of the most in-depth background investigations the government runs," says Mattice. Such a clearance may also require a polygraph exam and periodic re-examinations, says Mattice.

For the purposes of this article, substitute other business-critical words for "national security" when thinking about secure facilities. Walter thinks that companies would be most driven to protect matters that could be embarrassing or costly or would give advantages to a competitor. Mergers and acquisitions are good examples. "If my company was up for a merger, or I was going to discuss a takeover, controlling leaks would be critical. A company needs an area where people in upper management can securely discuss things or look at documents," says Walter. Data such as customer account information, health records and Social Security numbers would also be considered highly sensitive. And internal company information, such as business plans, should be protected as such.

Labelling sensitive information at your company will stem from a combination of your corporate goals and the need to comply with government regulations such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act or the Trade Secrets Act.

This discussion of sensitive information ties into a risk analysis of both the data sets you want to keep secure and the intellectual property you have in your company's portfolio.

Organizations with government contracts don't have much choice when it comes to the information they protect: SCIF design specifications are spelled out for them. Security executives and their business colleagues have to make these assessments themselves.

Michael Creaney, a principal and director of development at US-based Creaney & Smith Group, a commercial real estate developer, says that just as the level of cleanliness in a clean room, which is used by drug manufacturers, depends on what is occurring inside it (counting, mixing or testing drugs), the level of SCIF security depends on the information within it.

Understanding what needs to be protected will start with prioritizing sensitive data. "You need to look at the information you are trying to protect, decide what the consequence would be if the information was leaked, and what you are willing to do to keep that from happening," says Walter. Some organizations find it useful to bring in outside consultants to help this evaluation process.

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