After a six-year search for a tamper-proof shipping container, no product has been fielded and one major vendor has dropped out of the race, citing a lack of progress by the Department of Homeland Security.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection is tapping industry to provide an off-the-shelf “conveyance security device,” which will be fixed to a container and electronically alert a CBP database if its doors are opened during transit.
The effort is part of the Container Security Initiative, in which CBP works with partner nations to prevent terrorists, drug runners and human traffickers from stashing contraband, bombs — or even people — in U.S.-bound containers.
General Electric Enterprise Solutions, however, recently halted development of its device, citing continued uncertainty over government testing and deployment policy. The company was unable to obtain firm dates for testing or deployment and was not notified of CBP’s policies regarding those issues, said Michelle May, a spokeswoman.
DHS has named shipping — a $100 billion industry that generates more than a million U.S. jobs — part of the nation’s “critical infrastructure.” There are more than 125 container transport firms in the United States, an increase of more than 60 percent during the last decade, according to the World Shipping Council. U.S. ports handle 50,000 containers from 175 countries daily. About 1,500 ocean liners make around 26,000 ports calls in the United States each year.
Chris Koch, president and chief executive officer of the World Shipping Council, said CBP is actively seeking a container security device. “It’s not like CBP has been sitting on their hands,” he said. “It’s a very complex issue.”
Patrick Simmons, director for non-intrusive inspection technology at CBP, said he conducted thousands of tests with several products. CBP will likely buy from more than one firm, but systems must be interoperable. This requires companies to share proprietary technology, which they are reluctant to do.
“The first guy out of the box who comes out with the answer has to share his work,” he said.
Vendors also have yet to develop a communication network secure enough to transmit data from containers, he said.
Testifying before Congress last year, Koch said a number of technical issues remain unresolved. Those include identifying personnel with access to the device, ruggedness and data encryption.
Finding an acceptable level of false positive and false negative rates is another issue, he said.
Simmons said testing has yielded a 1 percent to 10 percent range of false alarms. These can be triggered by anything from jostling on the high seas to a fall from a truck.
Koch told Congress that alarms also sound when customs agents open container doors, which is the norm in some foreign nations. But how to build the technology without disrupting some nations’ security practices remains an issue.
“Virtually all containers from such locations would alarm,” he said.
Shipping containers come in various sizes — some as large as a tractor trailer.
Ken Conception, program manager for cargo conveyance technology at DHS, is overseeing the development of a shipping container that is made from lightweight composite materials. It has embedded sensors in the walls.
A customs officer in a partner nation will punch a code into a handheld device before opening the container’s door. That information will be transferred back to a database in the United States, which will record when, where and by whom a door was opened. If the box senses an unauthorized opening, a database will be alerted.
Building the technology is only the first step, Conception said. The real challenge is moving a container with embedded sensors through the supply chain without disrupting commerce. It could be dropped, struck by lightning, undergo extreme heat or cold or be jostled during storms at sea — all of which could trigger false alarms. Hammering out those details takes time, he said.
Fred Burton, analyst at Stratfor, said that even the most advanced technology cannot prevent terrorists from bribing their way past corrupt officials.
“If a person can get tons of dope or counterfeit goods into the country, what else could they bring in?”