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Securing Your Cargo With Seals

RFID and other high-tech seals have the potential to secure supply chain assets. But a Los Alamos National Laboratory study found that it’s important not to mix up inventory and security functions.
By Roger G. Johnston
Jan 12, 2004—Tamper-indicating seals have been used for more than 7,000 years. Today, seals are widely used to help counter cargo theft, smuggling, sabotage, vandalism, espionage, tampering and terrorism. The Vulnerability Assessment Team at Los Alamos National Laboratory, a research lab run by the University of California for the U.S. Department of Energy, has intensively studied tamper-indicating seals for the past 12 years. We have provided consulting, vulnerability assessments, and security solutions for more than two dozen government agencies and private companies.
An RFID bolt seal

During the course of our work, we found that most seal users employ poor procedures, even for critical applications. Few know how to choose a seal for a given application. Most are unaware of the vulnerabilities of the seals they are using, and few provide their seal installers and inspectors with the hands-on training needed to reliably detect tampering. And there is little in the way of useful guidelines, standards or best practices available for how to choose and use seals. But with a better understanding of seals, how they should be used, you can dramatically improve the effectiveness of the seals you use to secure your cargo and assets.

Simply put, a seal, is a tamper-indicating device designed to leave non-erasable, unambiguous evidence of unauthorized access or entry. Unlike locks, seals are not necessarily meant to prevent access, just record that it took place. Seals must be inspected before there can be a determination of whether tampering has taken place. Devices that detect intrusion in real-time (instead of after-the-fact, like seals) are called intrusion detectors, or burglar alarms.

There are at least 5,000 different seals on the market today. They generally fall into three main categories: Mechanical seals do not rely on batteries or electrical power to monitor for tampering. Electronic seals, or e-seals, are electronic devices that use batteries or electrical power to monitor for tampering. Electronic seals are usually more expensive than mechanical seals, but are often reusable. Transponder seals are not electrified while watching for tampering; they are briefly powered up by (or for) the seal reader to check if tampering has occurred. Examples include seals that incorporate passive radio frequency identification (RFID transponders or contact memory buttons. (For a description of the different types of non-RFID seals, see Types of Supply Chain Seals.)

There are a number of reasons why it may make sense to use a seal for a given application instead of a lock. All locks can be defeated, even by determined amateurs. Locks often require complicated and expensive key-control or combination-control procedures. Usually, the key or combination must be present at, or sent to, the receiving location, which presents additional vulnerabilities. Seals—especially mechanical seals—are often cheaper than locks. Seals also tend to be easier and faster to remove than locks and are usually lighter and smaller than locks, something particularly important for cargo shipments and courier packages.

Most locks are not very effective at recording tampering. And while a robust lock may encourage a criminal who doesn't care about the intrusion being detected after the fact to bypass the lock and instead damage the container, vehicle, or railcar to gain entry, a seal may encourage the criminal to enter through the door, causing no damage except to the seal. There may be additional security, safety and economic reasons why we would prefer the adversary to enter through a given portal, rather than from any random direction.
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