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Feelings of Insecurity

The global supply chain remains vulnerable to a terrorist attack. RFID alone won’t secure cargo containers, but it’s a start.
By Mark Roberti
Nov 14, 2005I was invited by the MIT Enterprise Forum of Cambridge to do a presentation and host a panel on electronic seals—active radio frequency identification devices that can detect unauthorized entry into a container. Since the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., on Sept. 11, 2001, there have been great concerns about a terrorist sneaking a weapon of mass destruction into a country by hiding it in a container. Despite that fear, little progress has been made toward preventing this from happening. While RFID has some potential to secure cargo containers, the panel discussion made it clear that adopting e-seals is not going to happen quickly, and e-seals are not a panacea.

Originally, e-seals were designed to prevent someone from taking something out of the container (stealing). But e-seals are now being seen as a way to prevent someone from putting something into the container (such as a nuclear weapon). After the container is closed, a bolt or cable attached to a box with an active RFID transponder is put through the holes normally used for a lock. If the seal is tampered with, that information is communicated to an interrogator the next time the tag is read. The main benefit of e-seals is that they can be read automatically, rather than requiring staff to check each seal to see if it’s been tampered with.

A technical committee of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has been working to create an international standard for e-seals, ISO 18185. There has been some disagreement among vendors represented on the technical committee about the standard. Savi Technology has been a prime mover in pushing for a standard that will allow for the introduction of a low-cost, base-level e-seal to spur market adoption. But Motorola doesn’t think the proposed standard includes enough data security. And GE Global Research feels that an external device is too easily tampered with or spoofed. It’s chosen to produce and market a container security device that does not use RFID; it goes on the inside of the container to prevent someone from tampering with the device itself.

My panel included representatives from these three companies: Walter Dixon, project leader for port and cargo security at GE Global Research; Juergen Reinold, senior director of Motorola’s Secure Assets Division; and Fraser Jennings, VP of standards and regulatory activities at Savi Technology. Also on the panel, representing the end-user community, was Nick Tsougas, a senior logistics analyst with the U.S. Department of Defense.

Standards are critical to achieving adoption of e-seals. It would not be feasible for shippers to put different seals on different containers depending on which port a container was going to, or which border it would cross on a truck. The vendors on the panel said they expect a standard to be approved by the end of next year, though some end users are skeptical. They point out that a vendor whose market position would be hurt by a standard could slow adoption by raising continual objections on technical grounds.

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