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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
The panelists also raised other barriers to adoption of e-seals, beyond the challenges of getting a global standard. One is the cost of the infrastructure. Who will pay for interrogators to be deployed at ports around the globe? Hutchison Port Holdings has teamed with Savi to deploy the infrastructure at Hutchison ports. The partners plan to sell the solution as a service to other terminal operators (see Savi, HPH Form Joint Venture). However, other ports are reluctant to invest in the technology because they don’t see a return on investment.

Another issue is that e-seals alone don’t solve the security problem. What, for instance, if someone were to cut a hole in the top or side of a container? Some vendors are looking at sensors that could detect light and communicate its presence to an e-seal on the outside of the container, which could communicate that to an interrogator.

An electronic bolt seal manufactured by E.J. Brooks and sold by Savi.

But terrorists aren’t dumb. They will quickly learn about these sensors and figure out ways to get around them. “Someone can get hired at a company and sneak something into the container when it’s being loaded,” said Reinold. “Then it’s sealed and the seal is never broken.”

RFID tagging the items that go into the container helps create a cargo manifest that can indicate to customs officials that the shipment is legitimate, but there is currently no way to detect the presence of a package that isn’t tagged. “It only takes a small amount of plutonium to make a nuclear bomb,” said Dixon, “so trying to detect that based on the volume of items in a container is not realistic.”

The general feeling among the panelists was that e-seals offer some limited protection and are a good starting point. They said that a new generation of smarter containers with built-in security features is probably needed, and that adoption will take time and probably be driven by the economic benefits that come with tracking cargo. The problem I see is that no one is really motivated to solve these problems. Companies are not eager to invest in new, more secure containers or e-seals because it adds an additional expense.

Meanwhile, the supply chain remains vulnerable. My fear is that there will be a terrorist attack. Even if terrorists use conventional explosives and not a nuclear weapon or “dirty bomb,” which spreads nuclear waste with conventional explosives, politicians will react by introducing mandatory solutions, which may or may not be helpful but will certainly be a burden on shippers, carriers and ports.

What we need is for the ISO standard to be approved as swiftly as possible, and for shippers to launch trials even before then. If the seals provide visibility into the location of cargo, in addition to providing a small level of security, that will foster adoption, and as imperfect as e-seals are, they are better than nothing. Governments around the world would also be smart to invest in research and development of low-cost light, temperature and radiation sensors that might be combined with e-seals to boost security. And we need better batteries to power these devices over longer periods.

A small amount invested today could avert a disaster tomorrow.

Mark Roberti is the founder and editor of RFID Journal. If you would like to comment on this article, click on the link below.

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