I travelled to New York City last week for some meetings with colleagues and business partners, some of which were held in their high-rise offices in Manhattan. Although the rent may be high, the view is usually spectacular. At one of these meetings, as we sat in a small conference room, bookended on either side by large office suites, we charted our plans for world domination on the conference room’s whiteboard. It was natural. We began to spitball ideas and the next thing you know, one or the other of us were taking turns at the whiteboard outlining our goals and the means to their achievement.
Later, that afternoon, I headed over to the mid-town hotel in which I was staying, checked-in, and headed to my room. As with the office I had visited that day, my room was on a high floor and had an expansive view of the Hudson River, as well as, the buildings around me. Across the street from me was a new, modern, glass tower with the name of a large, multi-national law firm in massive letters appended to the side of the building some 50 stories above the street. Apart form the ten or so floors that were clearly the law firm’s, the remaining floors were wide-open and unfinished leading me to believe that much of the building remained vacant. But, wait a minute. What was that I was seeing?
From my hotel room I could see straight across the street, through the law firm’s expansive floor to ceiling windows, and into their beautiful, new environs. Aside from the abundant glass, steel and wood paneling adorning the offices, I had a perfect view of not only what were clearly some partner’s offices (big rooms, mahogany furniture, papers and files littered everywhere…some had telescopes aimed at the Hudson), but also into several conference rooms. Like the conference room I was in earlier that afternoon, people were working away charting their own plans for world domination on their own whiteboards. And I could see everything they were doing, and everything they were writing. If I had binoculars, or a camera with a telephoto lens, I would also have had access to some incredible information. Trade secrets, intellectual property, product plans, defense or prosecution strategies, any of these and more may have been easily visible for me, and others, to see. With the right audio equipment I could probably have listened in on their conversations as well. How could they allow this to happen?
It’s called cocooning. When you’re in your office you feel safe and secure, all wrapped up in the surroundings with your co-workers and whatever projects you may be working on. But while you may occasionally glance out the window, as I had that very afternoon in another conference room in another building, have you ever thought about who might be looking back at you? It doesn’t matter if you’re in a 50-story building or a single story building. The plans you write on that whiteboard, the presentation you display on that screen, the documents you leave on your floor, even the people you think you are meeting discreetly with, are all under scrutiny. Most of the time, it’s just someone like me, glancing out the hotel room and enjoying the view. Other times, it may be competitors, the media, or people looking to profit from whatever they can learn by watching you, or perusing whatever you happen to have on your whiteboard. Think about what kind of potential fallout that could represent. Not long ago I was made aware that small drones were being used to fly around buildings, hover outside office windows, and photograph what was going on inside. Technology, once again, is being used to give our adversaries an advantage.
Short of moving your business to a bunker, or installing drone killing surface-to-air missiles, here are a few tips you should consider to protect your business from prying eyes (like mine):
- Don’t point whiteboards, display screens, etc. at the windows, put the on the side wall of conference rooms or offices
- If you’re building out office space consider placing offices and conference rooms in the interior of the space with open spaces and cubicles towards the windows.
- Use blinds or shades to reduce external visibility into private spaces in your offices. Buildings with windows that are mirrored on the outside are a good solution as well, although beware: the mirroring effect is reduced when it gets dark outside and there are lights on inside
- Educate your employees to be thinking about the fact that they may be under a microscope. Awareness training can go a long way to mitigating this risk.
- Consider implementing a clean desk policy. (Last year we updated our Clean Desk Test on CSOonline.com – by the way, that’s my office in the slideshow).
- If you are on a first floor, has your building embraced CPTED (Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design) so that people can’t be hiding in the bushes and looking at what you’re doing in your office? (check out the International CPTED Association).
Please share your suggestions on how to reduce this risk.