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ISO Reconsidering E-Seal Specification

A vote to finalize ISO’s draft e-seal specification is being delayed to assess issues that might make e-seals more expensive but perhaps more secure.
By Stephen Barlas
Jul 01, 2005When fastened to a cargo container, an RFID-enabled seal, called an electronic seal (or e-seal), allows importers, shipping companies, port officials and customs inspectors to determine, without a physical inspection, whether the seal has been tampered with and the security of the container compromised. Currently, a number of companies, including Savi Technology and General Electric’s security division, make e-seals. Nonetheless, it’s unlikely the world's ports and ocean carriers, or U.S. importers, will invest in RFID seal and reader infrastructure until the International Standards Organization (ISO) issues an e-seal standard.

Finalization of that standard, however, is being delayed by a dispute between Motorola and other members of ISO Technical Committee 104, which has responsibility for shipping container standards. The conflict’s resolution will have implications for the shipping costs paid by U.S. importers—and, possibly, for the security of those containers.

In late 2004, ISO TC104 had pretty much completed a draft of the e-seal standard, ISO 18185, which will have six components, 18185-1 through 18185-7 (there is no -5). But during an ISO meeting in Beijing in December, Motorola raised a number of concerns about ISO 18185.

"The technical committee had not done a vulnerability study, and we were concerned about the security of the data on the tags," explains Juergen Reinold, senior director of technology, architecture, standards and intellectual property for Motorola's secure assets solution division. Reinold argues that 18185-7, which specifies the way the seal communicates with the interrogator, does not have any tag security, a serious vulnerability that can be exploited by terrorists and others. The company wants 18185-4, which describes the data protection features of an e-seal, to specify data encryption. The draft standard currently does not. Another problem is a lack of interoperability; 18185-7 is not sufficiently specified to enable a smooth coexistence among multiple vendors.

Fraser Jennings, VP of standards and regulatory activities for Savi Technology, believes the changes to be unnecessary. "We feel the solution that has been put forth and pursued for the past two and a half years is the correct solution," he states.

Craig Harmon is a member of TC104 and the president and CEO of QED Systems, a consultancy based in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He says the revisions being pursued by Motorola could end up increasing the cost of an e-seal between 50 and 200 percent.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) hopes to popularize e-seals among the 9,000 companies—most of them U.S. manufacturers—who voluntarily participate in the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism (C-TPAT) program run by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, a DHS component. Established in 2001, that program assures U.S. importers various levels of expedited handling of goods based on the extent of security measures taken by the importer. The DHS wants to give C-TPAT participants a new option: a "green lane" status.

Harmon, who has been working on RFID container standards for five years, says TC104 had pretty much agreed on a standard for e-seals in 2004 based on the ISO 18000 RFID standard. Section 18000-7 of that standard designates the proper protocols for 433 MHz, the frequency already used by Savi Technology (also a TC104 member) in its e-seal technology. The Defense Department has used e-seals with Savi's battery-powered RFID tags for 10 years.

"But then Motorola came late to the activity and wanted us to start back at square one," Harmon states. He says TC104 has the responsibility to do "due diligence" and investigate Motorola's concerns, some of which had legitimacy for certain members of the committee. Carrier members of TC104 have been doing additional testing of elements of ISO 18185 since May. Once the testing is completed, ostensibly in November, ISO 18185 specifications could be revised based on the results. After that, the draft standard would go out for a two-month ballot within TC104. Comments would then be considered, and changes would be made to the draft standard based on those comments. Then that revised standard would go out to all members of ISO for a vote. There could be a final standard by sometime next spring.

U.S. importers are eager to have a ratified ISO 18185 so the Department of Homeland Security can move forward with its green lane plan. George Cavage, director of strategy and technology for global container transportation company APL, however, thinks Motorola has raised some valid issues. Yet, he agrees with Harmon and Jennings that an ISO e-seal standard that does not specify ISO 18000 will result in more expensive e-seals.
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