A Layman's Guide to the High-Tech Tents That Keep Secrets SecretS

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, and electronic emanations" using a mixture of architectural detailing and electronic systems to defend against digital 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 cool photo of POTUS inside a SCIF in Rio. But SCIFs are becoming more and more common amongst government employees—especially over the past six months, according to a New York Times report.

So, who designs these contraptions? And how do they work? Some SCIFs are tents, like Obama's, but an increasingly popular option is this 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 listeners or hackers. SCIFs supply the first line of defense for protecting "Sensitive Compartmented Information" (a form of top secret security clearance) on smartphones, laptops, tablets, and even land lines safe.

A Layman's Guide to the High-Tech Tents That Keep Secrets SecretS

Image by ClearanceJobs.

Because SCIFs are supposed to distance sensitive information from the rest of the world, the Directive begins with architectural details—like adding a vestibule 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 mandated by the document, too.

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, too. 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 an average Faraday Cage).

A Layman's Guide to the High-Tech Tents That Keep Secrets Secret

Image by SCIFSolutions.

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.

A Layman's Guide to the High-Tech Tents That Keep Secrets SecretS

Image via Insulation.net.

But as intelligence officers get craftier and craftier, even the most souped-up SCIF won't be able to stop the leaks. That's why, as The New York Times reported yesterday, some agencies are going one step further and requiring that employees not even bring their phones on trips overseas. After all, loose texts sink ships.

Lead image: Whitehouse/Pete Souza.