Foiling Hackers With a Super Secure Room at Utica College

This new building at Utica College houses a “sensitive compartmented information facility,” or SCIF. Just you try to hack in, pal. (Photo courtesy Utica College)

Utica, N.Y. — I am standing in a room that I will probably never stand in again, no matter how many times I visit Utica College in the future.

At first glance, it seems like nothing special. It’s a plain, white room — not much bigger than an average office meeting room — with a closet at one end and a round table with chairs in the center. That my Utica tour guides had to enter a code into a sophisticated lock on the door was my first sign that this place is special. The second sign might have been the big, circular lock, situated above the first. It made a Stanley deadbolt look flimsy.

This room at Utica College is in fact a “sensitive compartmented information facility,” or SCIF. It is a room that will one day be inspected and certified by national-security agencies so that people from the Secret Service, the Department of Defense, the FBI, and other government entities can come here and inspect sensitive and top-secret data.

One might not expect to find such a room at tiny Utica College. But the college is home to top programs in cybersecurity, economic-crime investigation, identity management, and information protection. This room will help researchers and perhaps some students here get access to data that they would normally have to travel to, say, Washington to see.

“It’s a facility that is set to the standards of the National Security Agency,” Donald Rebovich, executive director of the Center for Identity Management and Information Protection, said during my once-in-a-lifetime tour of the SCIF. “The number of people who will be able to come in here and work will be severely limited. They will have to go through extensive background checks.”

A key security feature of the room hides behind the walls: The room is wrapped in foil that will deflect attempts to get at computers inside through wireless devices. Not all SCIF’s have foil linings, a feature that makes this room particularly special. Mr. Rebovich said that when he was telling defense-security experts at the Air Force about the SCIF, they perked up when he mentioned the foil: “They said, ‘Oh, a foil SCIF? That’s interesting. We’ll work with you.’”

But there are more security features. The heating and air-conditioning ventilation is on its own system, separate from the rest of the building, to prevent bugging. The electrical outlets also have their own service box, located in the closet. There are no Internet-access points in the room, and no wireless in the building. Data will have to be brought in on discs.

The double-locked SCIF room is surrounded by a secure corridor. People will have to use key cards and thumbprints to get in. Some of the glass in the corridor is frosted to keep people from seeing in from outside. The corridor will be outfitted with cameras and dedicated security personnel.

Infiltration by some Jason Bourne-type superspy is less of a threat than by hackers who are cruising around the area, looking for computers to break into through wireless networks. They might be looking for random information that they could use for blackmail or that they could sell. “They may not know how they would use it,” Mr. Rebovich said. “They are not going to find anything if they come here.” —Scott Carlson

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