Progress on container security

Progress on container security

In recent days, important information about supply-chain security has come to light, and it should be generally reassuring to the logistics community. A big fear in recent months has been the possibility that the government, prodded by major defense contractors looking for new markets, would impose on the logistics system a cost- and technology-heavy mandate that containers be rigged with tracking and sensoring devices. But that possibility is now more remote. The reason is twofold.

First, the unnecessarily tight-lipped environment surrounding Operation Safe Commerce is now thankfully loosening up a bit, and what we're learning is interesting. It's essentially that most of the high-tech gizmos tested under the $58 million technology-assessment program didn't work. It's all well and good to install an electronic sensor on a container. It's something else to subject that sensor to open sea conditions and expect it to function properly. American companies develop the most sophisticated military and security technology on earth, but it appears they have not figured out how to make a sensor that won't go off when it's not supposed to. And that's the key issue; unless the rate of "false positive" alarms is brought down to a negligible level, the technology can't be deployed on a large scale.

That is one of the main conclusions that's coming out of Operation Safe Commerce. "I don't think we're there yet. We have to successfully stress-test these devices in an operating environment," Elaine Dezenski, director of cargo and trade policy at the Border and Transportation Security Directorate of the Department of Homeland Security, said last week at the Maritime Security Expo in New York.

In an important way, the $58 million was money well-spent. It demonstrated to anyone who may need to know that this technology is not ready for prime time. It also reinforced the private sector's view that technology in this area must make economic sense and not necessarily be used for all containers at all times. "We have to have this make economic sense," said Janiece Webb, senior vice president and general manager for secure asset solutions at Motorola. "You are not going to take a $300 to $500 device and stick it on every container."

That is reason No. 1 to be reassured that an unreasonable mandate will not be imposed on the trade community. The other is the sudden emergence of non-electronic container seals as the next major step forward in securing the supply chain.

Asa Hutchinson, DHS undersecretary for border and transportation security, disclosed at the Maritime Security Expo that the DHS plans to "aggressively pursue" a new recommendation by a COAC subcommittee that all incoming containers be fitted with a high-security, ISO-standard container seal. Unlike the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism, this would be a regulation and would require the importer to pay for the seal and the carrier to verify that the seal attached at origin hasn't been broken or switched en route, Dezenski said.

This development is significant. If container security until now could be described as a three-legged stool resting on C-TPAT, the Container Security Initiative and the 24-hour advance-manifest rule as the basis for targeting, container seals will add a fourth leg. It's the next major step forward, and one that's timely and necessary because, as Hutchinson bluntly and accurately told the expo, "We have not sufficiently won our case" that the current approach to container security does enough to mitigate the threat. "We have to prove that this is the right strategy," he said.

Probably for the next year, therefore, the focus will be on container seals as the industry weighs in on the expected proposed regulation from the DHS. Though opinions may differ, a requirement for non-electronic, high-security seals on all containers is a good one, and with the private sector's endorsement through COAC, the DHS can pursue it expeditiously. The idea is not new. It follows very closely the recommendations in a white paper issued jointly in September 2003 by the National Industrial Transportation League, the World Shipping Council and the Retail Industry Leaders Association (formerly the International Mass Retailers Association). It will help improve container security while avoiding the pitfall of demanding solutions that are ahead of the current state of technology.

For these reasons, therefore, it's safe to say that further improving container security, an absolute necessity to counter the threats the civilized world faces, can proceed in a reasonable and efficient manner that will yield tangible benefits.

Peter Tirschwell is vice president and editorial director of Commonwealth Business Media's Magazine Division. He can be reached at (973) 848-7158, or via e-mail at