Skip to content

Editor's Note: Code Talkers

​Treehoppers are unassuming insects. The more than 3,500 species feed on plants, sucking sap from the branches. The treehoppers are small, roughly the size of a pea, and seem to spend most of their time sitting still and staying camouflaged to avoid getting eaten.

But appearances are deceiving. By studying these insects over the past few years, scientists are learning that treehoppers are actually vibrating a complex code that carries through the branches to other treehoppers and conveying distinct messages.

Princeton University researcher Micah Fletcher spent the summer of 2018 recording the vibrations and translating them into sound. According to an article by The Watershed Institute—a nonprofit conservation group providing a location for Fletcher’s research—a minute microphone is connected to a plant and the device converts the motion into sound. This method reveals a massive swath of unknown insect communication that uses distinct codes to transfer information.

The communications, which the researchers liken to the calls of birds, confer various advantages to the treehoppers. The insects engage in a call-and-response with potential mates, warn other treehoppers of predators, share the locations of desirable food sources, and even intercept and interrupt the transmissions of competing treehoppers. 

As scientists uncover a wealth of undiscovered treehopper data, security experts are faced with an unprecedented variety and amount of data from the various systems that control a facility’s functionality. Just as scientists learn to read treehopper code, security professionals must learn to listen to a building’s data. 

Our cover story this month can help security experts do just that. In “Smarter Structures, Safer Spaces,” authors Dave Brooks and Michael Coole discuss the results of their research project, funded by the ASIS International Foundation, the Building Owners and Managers Association, and the Security Industry Association. 

Brooks and Coole investigated the security of intelligent building management systems (IBMS). The research project resulted in Intelligent Building Management Systems: Guidance for Protecting Organizations. This guidance document was developed to allow security and facility managers to start a conversation around protecting a building against a variety of threats.

One of the most significant findings of the research was that security professionals were not usually involved in IBMS, creating vulnerability. 

“While IBMS include security functionality, most IBMS are managed and operated by facility managers rather than security professionals,” write Brooks and Coole. “These facility operators tend to focus more on broad organizational functions and cost management, and less on security, making it pertinent that security professionals pay close attention to these vulnerabilities.”

Like treehopper codes, the data created by intelligent buildings must be decoded. To do this, security practitioners must ensure that they speak the language.