Port Security: Top Threats and Technology Trends

A look at reducing security risks at ports worldwide

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.

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