GSA considers how to interconnect systems for new buildings

Today, when system components are now IT components, the risk if greater but interconnectivity can also have preventative measures with cost benefits.

As the director of the Buildings Technology Services Division at the General Services Administration’s Office of IT, Sandy Shadchehr said there has been a surge in desire for interconnected building systems over the past decade. In her office’s case, presidential mandates to integrate buildings for more, and more efficient data, are reinforcing the trend to migrate systems to the network.

“There’s a lot of IP-enabled devices. And with that, obviously, with the connectivity, with all those benefits that you get from connectivity, there comes the risk. And what is happening these days … is cyber, cyber, cyber,” she said on Federal Monthly Insights — IoT Security.

In the days of “standalone mode,” building systems were meant to last 20 or so years, and the risk levels were comparably low because those systems were not connected. Today, when system components are now IT components, the risk is greater, she said. But interconnectivity can have preventative measures that bring on cost benefits.

“Once you have the systems interconnected and they communicate with each other, then you can actually have a dashboard that you can have in an entire building in a nice console that you’re looking at, and you can start doing predictive analysis so that you’re not just waiting until a system breaks down,” she said on the Federal Drive with Tom Temin. “You can actually have systems sending you notifications: This thing doesn’t sound like this. This piece of equipment is not working quite right.”

That can mean fewer people needed in the building at all times, as well as greater energy efficiency, she said. But it also raises questions around ownership of the data on those systems. If something is hacked, Shadchehr said, traditionally that was a problem for IT or the singular security person. She said GSA changed its stance and determined that everyone has a role in solving cybersecurity weaknesses, from the Public Buildings Service to the chief information officer, to the building manager, the operational management maintenance person, and the service center director.

Examples of cyber dangers to building systems include people obtaining data about the operations to predict when personnel are working, to disrupt operations by hacking into a building. GSA’s portfolio of critical buildings for the federal government’s more sensitive agencies are top of mind, and are why constant vigilance is required, she said.

“Another one is that there can be a disruption of operations. There could be a very sensitive court proceeding going on and somebody can turn the lights on and off, and that can disrupt, or it can make a building very hot in the middle of July in Arizona, or in Texas,” she said. “They can make it unbearable to be in the building or incredibly cold, and the pipes get burst … so many things, so many scenarios that can happen, absolutely.”

Part of the predictive analytics of buildings systems Shadchehr described comes from occupancy and environmental sensors. The former can be things like thermostats and motion-detected room lights. COVID-19 was a game changer for these, as agencies needed to spread out their building occupancy for social distancing. At GSA headquarters in Washington, D.C., they used sensors to determine where to place people throughout the building. It is not just cameras but also devices using wifi or Bluetooth can alert a sensor when they enter the building. The Office of IT is tapping into the Internet of Things to see what works and what does not compromise security or privacy.

“We’ve done a few different pilots to see what works better for us. And we have buildings in all shapes and sizes and colors, so we have to try different types of things for different types of buildings that we have,” Shadchehr said.

Sensors and networks produce data, and the “mad rush” of IoT inspired a similar dash to collect that data. Just because GSA is collecting that data does not mean it will “just talk with each other,” she said. The Office of IT wants to work closely with the Office of Design and Construction to ensure the IT backbone installed in new construction is not an afterthought.

“It’s a lot easier to put it in place or to build it correctly, as you’re building the building, instead of going back and retroactively try to fit that. We’ve been in that scenario many times, and it’s a lot more costly, a lot more time consuming to basically fit a square peg in a round hole,” she said.

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