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Port Security May Be Aided By Electronic Container Seals

The Homeland Security Department could access data stored in the electronic container seal, but failure rates must be below 5%.
The security of America's ports and other avenues of commerce depends on a collaborative effort between government and private industry to develop new technology and apply consistent security standards, Asa Hutchinson said at Tuesday's Maritime Security Expo in New York. The Homeland Security Department's undersecretary for border and transportation security said that, while his department can establish security procedures and fund some of the technology needed to improve security, industry must be a part of the process.

"Private measures provide security--we have to convince the public of this," Hutchinson said at Tuesday's event. "When I think about what we must do, we cannot do it alone."

U.S. port operators inspect only about 5% of the nearly 7 million containers that come ashore annually, Hutchinson said. Given the reality that only a certain number of containers can be physically inspected, technology is required to improve maritime security. "Technology will play an important role in the maritime security arena," Hutchinson said.

As part of its mission to protect the United States from the next terrorist strike, Homeland Security has addressed port and maritime security in a number of ways. The department is working with ports and shippers to get them to adopt standardized ways of packing, moving, and accounting for cargo. Homeland Security has also channeled about $58 million into Operation Safe Commerce, he said. Safe Commerce is a program initiated in November 2002 by the Transportation Department and the U.S. Customs Service to fund business initiatives designed to improve security for container cargo moving throughout the international transportation system.

To further improve security along the supply chain, Homeland Security is working with the Treasury Advisory Committee on Commercial Operations to develop ISO-compliant container seals that provide shipping companies and law enforcement with information about the integrity of a container's contents. Congress in 1987 directed the Treasury Department to form the committee as a way to provide private-industry perspective on policy governing commercial operations. The committees' 20 members include Miami International Airport, United Parcel Service, Roadway Express, and Microsoft.

In a report issued to Homeland Security this week, the committee indicated it wants the department to approve the use of new, standardized container seals. These seals, which would range in cost between less than a dollar and $30 each, could be in use within 12 months of the department's approval, says Elaine Dezenski, director of cargo and trade policy for Homeland Security's Border and Transportation Security Directorate.

Electronic container seals may be on the horizon as both Homeland Security and private industry look for ways to more easily digitize container data, Dezenski says. "The status of the seal's integrity has to become a data byte, and Homeland Security would want access to that data." Still, for an E-seal to be effective, it must have a failure rate of less than 5%, given the volume of containers in the supply chain, she says.

Over time, U.S. ports have been designed to accommodate the maximum amount of traffic at the lowest costs, and reversing this trend will take more than the three years that have passed since Sept. 11, 2001, Hutchinson said. But the deadline is far from flexible because terrorists continue to look at areas that can be exploited, he said.

Homeland Security is backing up its position. Secretary Tom Ridge Monday announced a $49 million round of port security grants, plus $9.9 million in federal funds to be used for bus vehicle and facility security, and a $21 million grant for the American Trucking Association's Highway Watch Program, which will be available for use beginning in March 2005. This agreement with the association is expected to help expand the Highway Watch program, which trains highway professionals to identify and report safety and security concerns on the nation's roads.