Port Security: Top Threats and Technology Trends

The terrorist threat of greatest concern to U.S. authorities today is a weapon of mass destruction (WMD), particularly nuclear, and the potential for the enormous damage it could create. To prevent a WMD from reaching the U.S., our country's security efforts encompass air and ground transportation as well as seaports. With the current debate about the management of some U.S. port operations by Dubai Ports World, the maritime scenario has spiked on the "radar screen" of popular and political consciousness.

It is important to understand that while paying greater attention to port security is vital, the focus on the management of U.S. terminals is misplaced. Once a ship arrives at a U.S. port, it is often too late to prevent disaster. A WMD can be detonated offshore or as the ship approaches the harbor, achieving its purpose before the ship ever puts its mooring lines over the pier.

In terms of port security, the most critical concern begins at the other end of the journey with verification of the contents of containers in such ports as: Rotterdam, Singapore, and Dubai. Port security begins long before the containers are loaded onto ships headed to the U.S.

Today, programs including the Container Security Initiative (CSI) and the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism (C-TPAT) help protect against threats brought to the United States in containerized cargo. To identify high-risk containers, U.S. government organizations and agencies use intelligence data and apply sophisticated algorithms to information in the shipper's manifest. Approximately 6 percent of containers bound for the U.S. meet high-risk criteria and are inspected in foreign ports.

While these efforts are valuable, further enhancements to port security are needed, and technology is providing a vital aid. Several technologies including intelligent video and X-ray portals are already providing good threat-detection and their use is likely to expand, while others also have great potential as part of the port security arsenal.

- X-ray and Radiation Portal Monitors (RPM): Only a limited amount of the containers that eventually arrive at U.S. ports are delivered to overseas ports of departure by ground transport. X-ray and Radiation Portal Monitors enable port security to examine the contents of containers as trucks or rail cars arrive at the gates of overseas ports. If the manifest states that the content is cigarettes, for example, but a scan indicates a profile more common to explosive materials, security teams perform a visual inspection of the cargo. These technologies are good for ascertaining whether there is a threat, and the number of companies worldwide investing in these approaches is likely to increase.

- Intelligent video systems: Once containers arrive at a foreign port, they may not be loaded immediately onto ships, and it can be this “down time” that is the weakness in the port security chain. Today’s new intelligent video systems can help ensure the integrity of the containers as they wait. Cameras systems are being designed and installed that can scan large numbers of containers night and day, and with intelligent video-video combined with behavior recognition software, there is no need to continually monitor the often-dull video of containers sitting in a warehouse or in a storage compound. The intelligent software of today can detect anomalous events, such as an unauthorized person walking in vicinity of a container or the opening of a container’s door, and the technology allows security guards to be alerted and respond in real-time. Intelligent video systems help maintain awareness of what is occurring with containers while they are waiting to be loaded, and investments in these technologies are on the rise as well.

- Crane-mounted sensors: The majority of the containers that come into the U.S. are trans-shipped. That is, a ship arrives in a port such as Rotterdam, and containers are off-loaded and put on a ship headed to the U.S. These containers do not pass through the gate of the port, and today, unless they are flagged by the manifest system as high risk, they are put on the ship and arrive at the U.S. port without inspection. One new technology to help address the inherent risks is a sensor that attaches to the end of the loading crane. Speed is important in crane operation, and this technology enables detection -- of radioactive or nuclear material, for example -- in a seamless manner. The crane picks up the container and if it detects a threat, it puts that container aside and picks up another. Loading continues uninterrupted while the security team inspects the suspect container. The effectiveness of this technology has been demonstrated, and it is gaining wider interest as a part of day-to-day operations at ports around the world.

- Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags: Whether the container is on a truck, train or ship, RFID tagging can help authorities identify the current location and the transit path of the container. If an RFID tag is applied as soon as the cargo is loaded, the container's position can be constantly updated. For example, if a ship deviates from its charted track, or there is movement of the container once aboard ship (containers are usually strapped in place until they are off-loaded), these anomalous events would be investigated immediately. Similar technology is used today in the U.S. trucking industry to indicate whether a driver is in transit or has pulled off for a rest stop, and this technology can have dramatic implications for verifying container security.

- Intelligent device management: In some high-end automobiles today, sensors united by intelligent device management can tell you whether tire pressure is low or an oil change is due. Intelligent devices with sensors on containers could indicate the presence of chemical and biological materials, the opening of a door, or the breaking of a container seal. Intelligent chips and device management architecture can enable authorities to monitor high volumes of "smart containers" from a central point and provide real-time alerts. This rapidly evolving technology offers powerful capabilities for detecting threats long before containers reach U.S. shores.

- Maritime domain awareness: Currently, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration monitors all U.S. air space and air traffic; however there has been no parallel program for the maritime domain. In 2005, the White House issued a document titled "Our Maritime Strategy," outlining a program for domain awareness of all ships approaching U.S. coasts. While maritime domain awareness is not a technology in itself, it is based on technologies working in unison. As government agencies work together toward funding and achieving this goal of monitoring sea traffic, technology investments will include an integrated coastal radar system that can also assimilate intelligence data. There is even the possibility of using surveillance devices such as unmanned air vehicles.

These technologies can begin to mitigate the risk of harm to our nation, and through the appropriate use of these new technologies and existing policies and programs, the U.S. can maintain the openness and speed of trade that have created opportunities and economic strength for this nation. Since U.S. security is so closely tied to security measures at ports around the globe, the issue of worldwide partnership is key. In maritime trade, as with air and ground transport, technologies that can help detect threats without slowing the movement of goods will help not only the U.S. economy but also the economies of our trading partners worldwide.

About the Author: David M. Stone, Rear Admiral, U.S. Navy (retired) is the Former Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security for the Transportation Security Administration. As Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security for the Transportation Security Administration from December 2003 to his departure in June 2005, he led the effort to secure the U.S. transportation system from terrorist attacks while promoting growth and increased access. He is an acknowledged leader in transportation security having also served from 2002 to 2003 as the TSA's first Federal Security Director at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). Admiral Stone is a 28-year career naval officer who served with great distinction in a variety of roles including as Commander of NATO's Standing Naval Force in the Mediterranean during operations in support of the Kosovo conflict. He also served as Commander of the Nimitiz Battlegroup/Cruiser Destroyer Group 5. He retired from active duty in April 2002. Admiral Stone serves on the Advisory Board of Vidient Systems, Inc. He is a 1974 graduate of the United States Naval Academy and holds post-graduate degrees from several institutions including the Naval War College.

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