Lifting the fog from smart boxes

Lifting the fog from smart boxes

The "smart container" is a concept that's still shrouded by fog. The term surrounds a host of container-security ideas that would use technology for protection. A smart box will be able to tell inspectors if someone - a terrorist, smuggler or thief - has tampered with it while it's in transit, something that containers today can't do. It's almost certain that shippers, carriers and intermediaries will have smart containers in their future, but government and industry are still far from consensus on what they should be. Devising a smart box has become mired in bureaucracy, and money wasted on redundant efforts.

The good news is that fresh breezes are stirring. The Department of Homeland Security's Border and Transportation Security directorate has taken control of smart-container projects that were started by two of its subordinate agencies, Customs and Border Protection and the Transportation Security Administration's Operation Safe Commerce. The directorate will coordinate the two programs to eliminate overlap and identify gaps in the security fabric, said Elaine Dezenski, director of cargo and trade policy. The DHS's advisory committee on Customs commercial operations, known as COAC, will likely endorse the container-security steering committee at its meeting on April 2.

"We want to make sure that all these things are part and parcel of the same effort. That's what we're trying to get to," Dezenski said. After Sept. 11, 2001, Customs launched programs such as the Container Security Initiative and the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism. To examine vulnerabilities in the nation's transportation system, the Transportation Department organized ad hoc working groups, including one on sea containers. Dezenski said the next step is to make sure these programs link together in a broader security framework. "Now that the department has a little bit more framework itself, it's easier to undertake this."

But Homeland Security officials have congressional representatives looking over their shoulders. The Maritime Transportation Security Act gave the department a Dec. 31, 2003, deadline to implement critical security measures, and members are not happy that the DHS missed the target. The law ordered the Transportation Security Administration to develop standards for container seals and locks. The standards were to build on information gleaned from Operation Safe Commerce, but OSC fell well behind schedule. The security act also called for the creation of a broader "secure systems of transportation" initiative that has not begun. In October 2003, Customs announced its own "smart box" project to develop minimal container standards for C-TPAT members. With the apparent confusion and missed deadlines, the DHS directed oversight of smart containers to the next level.

"At a certain point we need to decide what we want to put forward as criteria for performance standards," Dezenski said. "Our goal is to make them flexible enough to accommodate new information and technology as it becomes available. It's an iterative process, but we have to start somewhere."

Participants in Customs' Smart Box project have the opportunity to field-test some of those requirements, but Dezenski said the larger question is how far the standards would apply. Will C-TPAT members use them to get the unobstructed flow of imports that Customs has promised?

"Do we want a test of several months, after which we can make a better determination of the cost to the industry, and create a realistic time frame for implementation?" she asked. "How can we leverage the tools that we already have to test some of these things we need to do, and get to some solid performance standards in short order?"

Flexible container-security standards will mean "that there's a toolbox available from which any company can determine how to meet the criteria," Dezenski said. For example, if the standards require an electronic sensor, it must be something that Customs can read. "We're not in the business of hyping one proprietary technology over another. There may be a lot of solutions out there, but only a handful will meet the requirements. There are not going to be any easy answers, but we're trying to get to a toolbox, so the regulated parties can make the best decisions based on their business models."

That's where COAC comes in. To jump-start the creation of standards, the container-security steering committee will put together a proposal for the advisory committee's review and comment.

"Rather than have the COAC start from scratch, we want to give them a framework to respond to," Dezenski said. That may speed the process. Some requirements for container locks and seals that C-TPAT members can use may be on the books by Sept. 30. It's not likely that the independent-minded members of COAC will approve a Homeland Security proposal without thoroughly considering its effect on trade facilitation.

One of the biggest concerns is making sure that any standards the U.S. adopts will be workable in the rest of the world, said Christopher Koch, president of the World Shipping Council, which represents container shipping lines. "It is hard work to figure out how this thing should be pieced together. You can't wait for the perfect solution, but if something requires global deployment and infrastructure, people are going to want to know they're not going to be doing this for just 12 months. There are difficult questions to answer: Who will own the infrastructure? Who will control the information that the system gathers?

Radio-frequency identification technology would dictate widespread distribution of electronic readers. Would they be on vendors' loading docks, mounted on port gates, or be hand-held by inspectors? "Is that really practical? Or do you jump past RFID altogether, and move toward a wireless satellite-based system to do this?" Koch asked. "Whatever the answer is going to be, it's not going to be one that's going to be implemented in the next six months. You have to answer some hard questions about what are you trying to do with the device, and who's going to be responsible for it."

Everybody talks about having a safer container, but carriers and shippers will also have to work through the difficult question of who controls access to information, Koch said. "What will a shipper have to pay to ping somebody else's computer system for information on his cargo? When you control the information, you control the use, and you control the payment stream. Those are the issues that people are starting to understand. Whether or not anyone has started working through the answers is not clear."

The smart container is not enough. A nuclear weapon could be securely locked and sealed in a container that meets all security standards, and still be an imminent threat to U.S. security. Congress will press Homeland Security to go beyond the smart container to build secure systems of transportation that were called for in the maritime security law.

"We want performance standards that require an affirmative technology-based reading that says this container does not include nuclear, radiological or chemical weapons," a senior Senate staff member said. To do less than that, Homeland Security is missing the point.

Implementation of standards is out of Congress's hands, but Congress has the power to embarrass the administration through investigation and oversight. Independent of Homeland Security's efforts on the smart container, Congress's General Accounting Office this summer will begin a comprehensive examination of Customs' programs, CSI and C-TPAT included.

If there is a terrorist incident, Congress can say it's the administration that will be held accountable. And lawmakers will feel political pressure to enact draconian measures that will please no one in the trade community. "If something happens, I will probably be writing the most God-awful bill that's ever been written on transportation," the Senate staff member said. "That will throw a monkey wrench into everything."