Cargo Container Security Navigates the High Seas

Adoption rates for electronic systems aren't as fast as many expected -- and here's why


A week ago at a GE Security press conference held during the 2007 ASIS International Seminars and Exhibits, GE Security's Vice President and General Manager for Americas Commercial Greg Burge, explained why an initiative to enable the cargo container industry with electronic security devices hadn't been as spectacular as GE and many port security experts had believed it might be.

"The fact is there is lots of legislation that is still in the works, and everyone is concerned about the standards that this legislation could bring," said Burge. "They're scared that if they invest in a technology before the standards are completed, then what they invested in might not meet the standards."

GE Security, which was one of the early vendors of a cargo container security device, has reason to be concerned. The Safe Port Act of 2006, was a piece of legislation that had been reappearing in Congress for years without much success until it was passed and signed into law by George Bush in 2006. While the bill doesn't specifically set technology standards, it's clear within the industry that standardizing of container security technologies is a sticking point and possibly on the horizon.

It's no wonder that there is an issue in technology; this is an industry which has traditionally used basic mechanical seals which simply ensured that if the seal wasn't broken, then the doors had not been opened. Those simple mechanical seals weren't fully effective, as many shippers learned that organized crime was sometimes even going to such extremes as removing the heavy steel doors as a pair from their hinges so that the seal never was broken. It was a classic case of criminals beating out low-tech security, since those seals only tell the shipper that the doors hadn't been swung away from each other. Then came newer technologies from vendors steeped in electronic security systems for businesses and commercial assets. Generally, these were intrusion alarms that could notify an integrated security system either via RFID scanning, or by radio/cellular or even by satellite.

Still other systems looked at GPS tracking of containers on top of intrusion detection to give shippers and shipping agents a real-time operational view of the containers as well as the security status. The problem, of course, was that maritime and port environments aren't exactly technology friendly, with moisture and corrosion almost always the first two ingredients for technology failure in maritime environments. Additionally, signaling is challenged by the massive nature of some container yards and by the difficulty in signaling when containers are buried in stacks. The industry has often focused on the choke-point model for scanning and retrieving RFID-transmitted data stored in the electronic devices, but detractors of that model argue that it doesn't tell you about a breach until it's too late and the cargo is gone or the bomb is already in there.

But, according to Luke Ritter, author of the book "Securing Global Transportation Networks," CEO of Trident Global Partners and principal on global security for Tom Ridge's new consulting firm Ridge Global, the acceptance of such electronic security technologies isn't just about whether there are standards or not. For Ritter, the issue of acceptance of the electronic container security devices gets down to cultural challenges.

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