Article originally appeared in November 2013
It seems like every day brings a new “revelation/” about Allied nations spying on other Allied nations. But while friends spying on friends might not be a huge surprise, the US is spending tons of money and brainpower trying to protect its sensitive conversations — in part, using portable security “tents”.
These Sensitive Compartmented Information Facilities — SCIFs, or Skiffs, as they’re commonly referred to in the security industry — are designed to block “forced entry, covert entry, visual surveillance, acoustic eavesdropping, electronic and or sonic weapons” using a mixture of architectural detailing and electronic systems to defend against RF (Radio Frequency) and EMF (Electric and Magnetic Field) attacks.
They’re also nothing new — we’ve known Obama has used one in hotel rooms and other insecure locations since 2011, when the White House published a photo of POTUS inside a SCIF in Rio. But SCIFs are becoming more and more common amongst government employees — especially since the Snowden disclosures were made public in June of 2013 which revealed numerous global surveillance programs, many run by the NSA and the Five Eyes Intelligence Alliance with the cooperation of telecommunication companies and European governments, that prompted a cultural discussion about national security and individual privacy.
So, who designs these contraptions? And how do they work? SCIFs are generally built by government contractors. Some SCIFs are tents, but an increasingly popular option is the trailer version — which can be trucked in and set up within hours. Sometimes, an entire building is a SCIF, while others are installed in existing homes.
But the specs themselves are always mandated by a Director of Central Intelligence Directive from 2010, which describes how to protect a building, tent, or installation from outside eavesdropping, hackers and high tech EMF weapons such as sonic projectors. SCIFs supply the first line of defence for protecting “Sensitive Compartmented Information and personnel” (a form of top secret security) on smartphones, land lines, and other communication devices, while shielding occupants from intrusive & potentially lethal sonic weapons similar to the reported incident against staff at a US Embassy in Cuba effecting 22 employees in the fall of 2016.
Since SCIFs are supposed to distance sensitive information from the rest of the world, the Directive begins with architectural details — like adding a air gap and extra interstitial reception spaces as “padding” between the SCIF and the outside. If the SCIF is a building (rather than a tent), it has to be reinforced concrete or lined with solid steel. Everything from the depth of the drywall to the thickness of the insulation is described in the document.
The first — and most traditional — surveillance threat is sound, so SCIFs are lined with thick acoustic piling. In most cases, noise-masking devices like transducers are installed to garble what’s going on inside. According to the BBC, another type of wave-emitting device creates a ring of electronic signals around the space, blocking other types of electronic surveillance, while a lining of special, foil-like material also blocks more traditional audio surveillance (similar to a Faraday Cage).
Unsurprisingly, metal details like air vents and sprinklers — anything that creates a hole in the concrete box, really — pose a huge problem for security. So all emergency systems, ducts, and other systems have to be “grounded,” meaning they don’t connect to any other spaces. It’s even better if there are none, in which case the SCIF must have its own air supply.
Likewise, all doors must close automatically, and hinges must be non-removeable. Any door leading to an exit has to be monitored at all times — and it can’t contain any hardware that faces the outside world. All sorts of sensors — from motion detection to sound detection — give users an alert when anyone enters or exits the space. The ideal SCIF, as you might expect, is a windowless concrete vault that’s far away from any building.
But as the intelligence community gets access to more sophisticated equipment, even the most souped-up SCIF won’t be able to stop the leaks. That’s why, as The New York Times reported, agencies are beginning to go further requiring that employees not even bring their phones on trips overseas.
As for the rest of us who can only dream of such security see:
A paranoid guide to fighting the bugging epidemic