Smart Office Buildings: Cybersecurity Risk?

19 May, 2022 / Alan Rosinsky
Modern NYC Commercial Real Estate Tech Advancements Transforming Offices.

We live in an increasingly digitized world, both at home and at work. Technology has become part of our daily lives, from touchless technology, keyless entry, fingerprint scanners, and face recognition software to smart building programs and remote-controlled devices.

The same concept is starting to apply to where we work, as commercial office buildings are catching up with tech innovation and becoming more intelligent every year. According to the Wall Street Journal, the Covid19 pandemic has accelerated technology adoption and innovation even more, and U.S. office buildings have been undergoing a quiet revolution. While most people were busy working from home during the past couple of years, building owners have been hard at work trying to make offices smarter, healthier, safer, and more cost-effective.

The smart building revolution

Some of the smart features added to U.S. commercial office buildings in recent years include: face recognition software, fingerprint and retina scanners, keyless building access, touchless technology, sensors that detect air quality, temperature, dust levels, CO2 levels, humidity, and so on, as well as security features like closed-circuit cameras, motion-activated emergency systems, remote-controlled building alerts, and much more.

The Wall Street Journal offers the example of Honeywell’s headquarters in Charlotte, which boasts more than 300 sensors on each floor. Everything inside the building is connected to the internet, from elevators and office doors to lighting and HVAC systems.

The advantages

The good part is that smart building systems allow building managers to control everything inside their building remotely, with just a few taps on a device screen or a laptop. Every building feature can be monitored, activated, or deactivated from a unique digital control room quickly and easily. This saves building owners a lot of time and money, makes the property more appealing to potential tenants, and boosts energy efficiency. Motion-activated lighting, water, and air conditioning systems can significantly cut utility costs. Digital surveillance and security systems make it easy to react promptly to any issues on-site, allowing managers to activate emergency systems remotely.

The risks

The digitalization of commercial office buildings does come with certain disadvantages, however. As more buildings continue to embrace smart technology, there are rising cybersecurity concerns. According to the WSJ, building managers are not as concerned with these digital security risks as they should be. The problem is that many of these managers lack the necessary expertise to recognize potential threats and vulnerabilities when it comes to the digital security of their buildings. Or, they might be insufficiently trained or unaware of how easy it is for expert hackers to gain control of a building.

As office buildings become ‘smarter,’ hackers also become better at pinpointing vulnerabilities. In 2013, hackers accessed Target’s systems and managed to steal confidential data on millions of customers. How did they manage to get this data? Network credentials were stolen from a third-party vendor, an HVAC contractor working with Target Corp. This shows how easy it can be to penetrate a building or a company’s digital firewall and steal critical data or even control building systems. Suppose just one tiny part of the system breaks down. In that case, it can trigger a chain of events that allows outsiders to control elevators, doors, and cameras and access tons of confidential internal data. Hackers are tech-savvy and aware of the potential vulnerabilities in intelligent buildings, and they will use any point of entry they can to destabilize the entire system. They could block doors and elevators and even demand ransom from building managers.

Hackers are increasingly targeting connected buildings because they are not as protected as devices or databases. But building owners are also becoming more aware of cybersecurity threats and are starting to place greater importance on digital security. Some of them even hire ‘ethical hackers’ who can pinpoint vulnerabilities in a smart office building system. They can also set up warning systems and alerts to help prevent potential cybersecurity threats and use software to monitor all building systems in real-time.

How worried should office tenants be about digital security risks in their buildings?

Smart office buildings are indeed vulnerable to cybersecurity risks, but this shouldn’t deter tenants from leasing office space in such a building – quite the opposite. Smart, connected buildings are more efficient, cost-effective, and environmentally friendly, not to mention more appealing to young, tech-savvy talent. If a company wants to attract and retain top talent and lure employees back to the office, they will need to make sure that that office is in line with the latest technological advancements.

Smart buildings feature sensors that allow office workers to go from the parking garage to their desks without even touching anything, and that’s an undeniable advantage in the post-pandemic age. Intelligent sensors that can detect small particles in the air and even detect the presence of viruses can prevent potential health hazards from spreading. Employees can use QR codes to enter meeting rooms, offices, and locker rooms, saving time and effort and increasing productivity and efficiency at work. This bodes well for employees and building managers because a more efficient building will automatically become more valuable to potential buyers.

Cybersecurity risks should not be a deciding factor when it comes to leasing office space in a smart office building. Instead, tenants can discuss prevention strategies with the building manager to ensure that their data and systems are protected from hackers. As long as the manager has warning and emergency systems in place to prevent digital attacks, renting office space in a smart, connected building unlocks a myriad of advantages for companies and their staff.

What’s next for the smart building industry?

A recent CB Insights report shows that innovative building tech companies raised $2.3 billion in funding during 2021. Interest in this sector continues to surge in 2022, in the context of the pandemic, which triggered a shift in how we use office buildings. The switch to remote work and home offices poses a significant challenge for building owners, which have to innovate and get creative to incentivize employees to come into the office. Major employers like Amazon, Microsoft, Toshiba, Shell, and GE are investing in smart building technology to transform the future of work and bring people back into the office.

But there is still more to come. As technology progresses, office buildings are becoming less traditional and more digitally connected. Some of the things we should expect to see in office buildings moving forward include, as per the CB Insights report: IoT (Internet of Things) connected heat pumps, virtual power plants, smart glass to increase privacy and reduce temperature control needs, AI-assisted security technology, and digital twins to help with facilities management.

One company making the best of available technology is Cisco, which has turned its 54,000-square-foot office at One Penn Plaza in Manhattan into a high-tech space featuring all the latest intelligent building features. Their space features wireless access points, IoT sensors, state-of-the-art video conferencing gear, and more. It’s part of Cisco’s goal to reach net-zero greenhouse emissions by 2040.

Another example is the General Services Administration (GSA), which cut its building’s portfolio annual operational greenhouse gas emissions by 51% compared to 2008 levels. The GSA plans to hit net zero emissions across its 370 million square feet of properties by 2045 – and other companies are sure to follow. The Biden administration has set up a government-wide goal to cut emissions by 50% by 2032.

Are you thinking of setting up your business in a convenient location in Manhattan? Are you looking to lease space in a modern building offering state-of-the-art amenities? To learn about available office or retail space, call Metro Manhattan Office Space at (212) 444-2241 or email us at [email protected].

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