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In This Coworking Space, Only the Cappuccino Isn’t Classified

Secure facilities available for short-term rental are cropping up in DC and other major cities.

Bloomberg Businessweek

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Still from 'Get Smart' involving the Cone of Silence

Nowadays, offices for spooks have much more understated security gear than that featured in the 1960s TV comedy Get Smart. Photographer: NBC/Photofest

The airy, open-plan office boasts all the amenities of a modern coworking space, from cappuccino and kombucha on tap to high-speed Wi-Fi. Then there are the bars on the air conditioning vents and the special anti-eavesdropping filters on the windows. Oh, and to get in the door, you must be among the 4 million or so people in the US with government security clearance.

Welcome to office sharing for spies.

The facility, just a short distance from the Pentagon, is operated by Nooks, a three-year-old company whose website touts a range of services tailored for “the new world of classified work.” Others like it are popping up around Washington and defense-industry centers such as California and Colorado to serve the legion of employees at defense contractors and other businesses with classified clearances. The cost to access these spaces ranges from a few hundred bucks for an hour or two to a few thousand dollars a month for full-time use.

Nooks and its competitors are positioning themselves as an alternative to a traditional, government-run Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility. By law, SCIFs are the only places where highly sensitive information may be viewed or discussed (though presidents and other top officials have been known to break the rules by taking classified documents home). Such facilities can be located inside a government building—such as the Situation Room in the White House—or be assembled on site, for instance at a hotel that’s hosting a visiting US dignitary.


The entrance to the classified workspace area at a Nooks site in Crystal City, Virginia. Photographer: Moriah Ratner/Bloomberg

“We’re looking to create a more up-level experience similar to what people would find in other industries,” says Sean Blackman, Nooks’ chief executive officer and a former Navy fighter pilot and tech executive. “We really try to pack amenities in.” The company has about 150 individual spaces for classified work across three sites in Virginia, Colorado and California.

Blackman and other executives in this segment see a growth market for so-called fractional SCIFs, thanks to the growing popularity of remote work and also rising global tensions. “With increasing geopolitical unrest, unpredictable adversaries and increasing cyberattacks, the demand side of the equation appears to be quite robust,” says Colin Madden, an executive with TMG, a Maryland-based commercial real estate firm that’s considering entering the field.

Government SCIFs are “pretty generic,” says Jay Marwaha, CEO of Syntasa, an artificial intelligence firm that rents secure space from a company called Westway, based in Herndon, Virginia. Private SCIFs have lots of amenities and are more conveniently located, and some are open 24/7, according to Marwaha.

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An unclassified demo room at a Nooks site in Crystal City. Photographer: Moriah Ratner/Bloomberg

Outfitting a SCIF of their own would be prohibitively expensive for most small companies. Installing all the safeguards required in the 200-page government manual that governs their construction can double the cost of a building, says Greg Lindsey, an executive at Westway, which operates three such facilities and is readying several others.

Each facility must be sponsored by one of the US intelligence agencies and needs to undergo a certification process to ensure it meets stringent specifications, including the installation of bars on air vents, sound damping material to keep conversations secure and motion sensors to monitor for unauthorized movement. Cellphones must be checked at the door, which is monitored by a guard at all times.

Nooks’ secure facilities are equipped with plugs for as many as eight different secret connections at each desk, providing a full complement of options for secure and nonsecure communications. There are plenty of shredders with specially marked “burn bags” for sensitive documents.

The Crystal City, Virginia-based business also offers mobile SCIFs, which can be as small as a phone booth or as big as a full-size shipping container. They can be customized to customer specifications and shipped on flatbed trailers to conferences or project sites.

There are three levels of classification: top secret, secret and confidential. They’re arranged according to the extent of damage that could be done to US national security if information at each level were released without authorization. Each level of security requires additional precautions.

Nooks’ space near the Pentagon is secure enough only to host activity at the secret level, though it’s looking to upgrade in the near future. For the moment, to handle the more exclusive top secret materials, customers would have to turn to Westway, which has two locations in the DC area as well as one in St. Louis and another in Aurora, Colorado. National security officials are eager to foster the growth of these spaces to fulfill the goal of enabling more small businesses to become government contractors. Nooks has a government sponsor for its clearance, though security regulations prevent the company from saying exactly who it is.

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The lobby of Nooks’ Crystal City space. Photographer: Moriah Ratner/Bloomberg

Servicing the spook sector is a rare bright spot—though a small one—in the market for office space, which is still awash in empty buildings in the wake of the pandemic. This distress in the commercial real estate market has presented a good opportunity to help solve a major national security issue, Nooks’ Blackman says. “The timing, I don’t think, could’ve been any better.”

For the truly discerning secret agent, there’s also a high-end option: a custom in-home SCIF.

Jennifer Chow, a real estate agent with RLAH Real Estate in Chevy Chase, Maryland, has been showing a home in the DC suburbs with a SCIF in the basement. The room was converted from a wine cellar and includes all the wiring and features you would need, though it was never accredited because the previous owner, a highly placed government contractor with a security clearance, never moved in.

In addition to the SCIF’s intended purpose, Chow says she tells prospective buyers that it could be used as a panic room or a safe for furs and other valuables. In a pinch, it could even be turned back into a wine cellar, she says.

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This post originally appeared on Bloomberg Businessweek and was published March 26, 2024. This article is republished here with permission.

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