The rise of stolen trade secrets, hacked texts and corporate spying is pushing more executives and law firms to embrace protective architectural remedies such as Viracon’s CyberShield security glass that can prevent eavesdropping and data theft.
The Owatonna company — known for cloaking the exteriors of U.S. Bank Stadium, the World Trade Center and the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis with glass — first introduced its eavesdrop-preventing glass to governments four years ago.
The CyberShield product, which took nine employees 18 months to develop, launched in 2012 and is not a large driver of Viracon sales, currently generating less than $10 million in annual sales. However, it is a growing area, said Ron McCann, specialty products sales director for the company. Viracon is showcasing it this summer at Facades+ trade shows in Minneapolis, Denver and Chicago.
The specialty glass that blocks radio frequency (RF) transmissions costs just 15% more than regular laminated building glass but adds huge protections, he said.
The global window films and coatings industry as a whole is predicted to grow from $10 billion to $13.8 billion by 2025, according to Grand View Research.
Right now, Wi-Fi blocking building glass is “something most people are not even aware of. But we have seen a growing interest,” said Annette Panning, marketing and product management director for Viracon, a subsidiary of $1.4 billion Bloomington-based parent Apogee Enterprises.
Demand is springing from architects and builders as they erect new courthouses, corporate skyscrapers, boardrooms, California mansions and research centers.
The leaders of pharmaceutical firms, chemical engineers, government contractors and financial institutions “are some of our target markets,” McCann said. “That is where the growth opportunities are. … We foresee a very healthy growth opportunity over the next three to five years.”
Plus, Viracon now has the product listed for use in U.S. embassies around the world. Those with “very high exposure” might also use it on their homes to block anyone from listening to phone conversations.
CyberShield is now one of only two blocking products approved for use for the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s program to construct new field offices. As a result, government contractors have swarmed. Beyond government, word has spread slower.
First, commercial customers avoid discussing security vulnerabilities.
Second, until recently, electronic and signal-blocking technologies were given classified status by the U.S. government and reserved for the White House, the B-1 bomber, the military and airplanes, McCann said. The government has declassified many such tools as the use of wireless laptops has flourished — and with it cyber crime.
To make CyberShield, Viracon’s factory in Owatonna applies a proprietary metal coating and a Pilkington DataStop product between layers of laminated building glass. The coatings block transmission of radio-frequency electromagnetic-radiation, so Wi-Fi signals and other data on cellphones and computers can’t exit a building or room. The goal is to keep texts, e-mails and phone calls private.
“We’re hearing more about database breaches,” said Eric Stein, a research-and development engineer at Viracon. “When [breaches] happen, the first thing people think of is firewall and Wi-Fi protections. The second thing, however, is what to do next to keep the Wi-Fi contained so that it doesn’t transmit beyond the offices and people it is intended to serve.”
In 2005 and 2006, hackers sat outside of several stores and used laptops and other equipment to crack into stores’ weakly protected Wi-Fi systems. In the end they stole millions of customers’ credit card data from T.J. Maxx, Marshalls and other retailers.
Since then, retailers such as Starbucks have tightened Wi-Fi security and looked at other ways to protect data.
So interest in CyberShield and other products “is constantly growing. It’s growing exponentially,” said Darrell Smith, executive director of the Virginia-based International Window Film Association.
Smith noted that Viracon’s CyberShield joins Eastman Flexvue, 3M Co., Signal Defense and a handful of other building glass or window film manufacturers with products designed to block Wi-Fi, radio frequencies and other electromagnetic emissions.
The more people learn about vulnerabilities, the more demand, Smith said.
“If you are an executive and building an expensive home, and you know that someone could just stop in front of your home with a sensitive microphone and listen into your conversations? If you could afford it, you would just install this [radio frequency blocking glass],” he said. “In a high-end market, there is no question. It is going to become standard [for] high-end builders.”
To drive home the point that law firms are also vulnerable to data and strategy theft, one security company ran an experiment about a decade ago in Washington, D.C.
The company “just pulled over and sat in loading docks or drove the streets all around Washington, D.C., with [a sensitive microphone and] recorder, just to show how many different buildings and how many conversations they could actually pick up,” Smith said. “They could actually listen to conversations going on all over town. People just had no idea.”