Step Up In Security - InformationWeek
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Step Up In Security

Inroads have been made in securing the nation's seaports, but more work needs to be done

More than three years after the terrorist attacks, cargo-container security remains an albatross around the collective neck of the shippers, carriers, and port operators that run the world's maritime commerce industry. As was pointed out repeatedly in the presidential debates these last few weeks by Democratic challenger John Kerry, only about 5% of the 20 million freight containers shipped annually into the United States are ever inspected, providing would-be terrorists with many opportunities to smuggle nuclear material or devices into the country.

Some inroads have been made. For example, carriers now electronically transmit information to the U.S. Customs' Automated Manifest System 24 hours before a container is loaded on ships bound for any U.S. port. This information includes a full description of the container's contents and a seal number (if the container is sealed). The Bush administration last week took further steps to shore up vulnerabilities. On Oct. 18, President Bush signed the fiscal-year 2005 Homeland Security Appropriations Act, which provides $28.9 million for the Department of Homeland Security. The act includes $419.2 million to enhance border and port security, such as expanding prescreening of cargo containers in high-risk areas. Additional funding includes $80 million to purchase technology, such as radiation-detection monitors, for screening cargo containers entering U.S. ports. The Customs Trade Partnership Against Terrorism, which focuses on facilitating communications to improve security from overseas factory floors to U.S. land borders and seaports, received an appropriation increase of $15.2 million for fiscal year 2005.

Patrol boat, Seattle seaport

Government funding for port security is set to increase in fiscal-year 2005.

Photo by Ted S. Warren/AP
While this increased funding may make port security's future brighter, many port operators are more concerned with the present. "Worldwide, ports are safer today than they were a year ago, but they're not safe," says Gary Gilbert, chief security officer for Hutchison Port Holdings, a division of Hong Kong's Hutchison Whampoa Ltd. that moved 44 million shipping containers last year and accounts for almost half of the total container traffic coming into U.S. ports.

Lack of funds, the absence of an international regulatory body to compel industry adoption of a single international radio-frequency identification standard, and a perception that there's no immediate threat have so far stymied efforts to put in place global systems that can markedly increase port safety. It never may be possible--or even desirable--to hand-check every container, but deploying appropriate technology raises the odds that the containers that do get inspected are those that really are most suspect.

"The next step hasn't been taken, which is to deploy the technology that's been tested in Smart and Secure Tradelanes and Operation Safe Commerce," says Steve Sewell, president of PB Ports & Marine, a division of Parsons Brinckerhoff Inc. that provides engineering services to the shipping industry. Operation Safe Commerce was initiated in November 2002 by the Transportation Department and the U.S. Customs Service to test new technology and processes at three of the country's busiest ports: Los Angeles/Long Beach, New York/New Jersey, and Seattle/Tacoma. As part of the program, PB Ports worked with the ports of Seattle/Tacoma and New York/New Jersey in testing RFID technology from Savi Technology Inc. to monitor tampering with container shipments.

Sewell won't provide details on that project, but a report on the results of Operation Safe Commerce will be filed in November to the Homeland Security Department, which has channeled about $58 million into the effort. Both the Transportation Security Administration (the current stewards of the program) and the maritime shipping industry are expected to learn from that report the impact that Web-enabled video, RFID devices, global-positioning system tracking, and supporting software could have on container security.

As it stands now, "carriers and port operators still have no idea what's coming in on those containers every day," says Lani Fritts, VP of business development for collaborative network services at Savi. "It's really a network problem more than a problem at any individual point."

One of the problems ports have to work through is making sure that the technology that's adopted won't adversely affect their ability to move massive volumes quickly. Seattle/Tacoma handles 1.8 million containers annually. "If we can't compete with throughput, [shippers] will choose a different port," says Rod Hilden, chief security officer for the Port of Seattle's seaport division. "Seaports have to figure out how we can move containers securely without slowing down commerce."

Meanwhile, technology deployed as part of the Smart and Secure Tradelanes initiative is still being evaluated by members of the Strategic Council on Security Technology, which includes Hutchison Port Holdings, the world's largest port operator; port operator P&O Ports; and the Port of Singapore Authority. The council launched the initiative in 2002 with private funds to improve supply-chain security.

Lessons have been learned, though. The first phase of Smart and Secure Tradelanes was completed during the spring of 2003. During this time, several port operators tested RFID and other "smart-container" technologies that could be used to determine when a container had been opened and record the time, much the way a plane's black box records and time stamps events during a flight. The ports and shippers that participated in the first phase learned that there were gaps in their supply chains where they had inaccurate data or no data at all. They learned the value of capturing and storing container data and implementing sensor systems, and the potential benefit of creating a supply-chain security audit trail.

And some of the technology is in use at the port operators. Hutchison, as part of phase one, has deployed a thousand such sensors worldwide, Gilbert says.

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