A few months after Sept. 11, 2001, ABC News "smuggled" a bogus nuclear weapon into the U.S. to demonstrate the vulnerability of the supply chain. ABC placed a quantity of depleted uranium in a sea container of other freight and shipped it to New York from a Mideast port. Once the box cleared customs, ABC broadcast a "we-told-you-so" story.
Now, the rest of the story, from Charles Bartoldus, director of targeting for the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection. The shipment popped out as an anomaly among thousands of inbound containers. Customs scanned the box, analyzed the radiation, and determined that it was not a threat.
"Depleted uranium can be legally imported into the U.S.," Bartoldus said. "My point is, we identified that it didn't belong on that ship, it needed to be examined. We did examine it, we assessed a risk, we released the cargo."
The ABC News incident is one of the few successes for Customs' Automated Targeting System that Bartoldus is willing to discuss. ATS is a tool that Customs has kept under tight wraps. Even the precise location of its national targeting center in McLean, Va., is confidential, at least for now. Bartoldus said that Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge may stage a public "grand opening" for the center in the near future, even though the center has been open since late 2002.
ATS is the main reason that Customs is pushing shippers and carriers to report data on import shipments 24 hours before loading at the foreign port. The system sifts through millions of data pieces to spot abnormal patterns - anomalies - that alert inspectors that a shipment needs greater scrutiny.
Bartoldus called ATS a decision-support tool. It began several years ago to spot likely narcotics shipments. Now it is on the front line in the war against terrorism, and a reason Customs has remained steadfast in its position that current security initiatives are working and don't need significant tinkering.
ATS runs by rules - about 1,000 of them. ATS filters data through a series of "rules," or criteria that Customs defines. Did the shipment originate in a high-risk country? Has the shipper sent the same item before? Does the shipment fit an established pattern? Customs' rules-set is secret for security reasons.
Depending on the answers, ATS assigns a numerical score. The higher the score, the greater scrutiny the shipment gets. Scores above 190 must be inspected. Between 150 and 189, an inspector decides whether further action is needed. Bartoldus estimated that 90 percent of import cargo scores below 100.
Rules-based targeting is not unique to Customs. Mark Irish, a program manager for ATG Inc. in Cambridge, Mass., said that rules-based targeting began as a marketing tool, but has applications from sales to security. The U.S. Army, an ATG customer, uses a rules-based system to communicate with its personnel.
"It's personalized content that would be interesting or pertinent to that particular person," Irish said. Over time, the system follows the users' patterns, and gets better at responding to them.
While ATS is sophisticated, it is not artificial intelligence. Irish said that the difference is how the system learns new things. Artificial intelligence systems are capable of analyzing their own data. Rules-based systems require human intervention to analyze the data and adjust the rules. Bartoldus said that ATS will never replace the good instincts of a Customs inspector.
Irish said the level of sophistication that a rules-based targeting system can reach is limited only by the capacity of the computer system it's running on. And it is as accurate as the humans who are defining the rules.
Bartoldus said that Customs is doing well. Pit man against machine, and ATS and an unassisted inspector will target the same shipment 75 percent to 80 percent of the time.
"One of the main benefits of ATS is that we're constantly refining it. Our goal is to put out a new version of the rules every two to three months," Bartoldus said. While the national center has a permanent staff, it is augmented by field inspectors who serve 90-day tours. "We're constantly challenging the people who use the system to refine it and tell us what works and what doesn't work."