Thinking Inside the Box

Hubs of commerce, above all shipping ports, have long been the circulatory systems of civilization. For nearly as long, they’ve also been an irresistible and often highly vulnerable target for criminals, pirates and others bent on wreaking havoc, from Captain Kidd and his band of marauders in the 18th century to the dock racketeers fictionalized in the movie "On the Waterfront" 50 years ago. Whatever the menace of these earlier forms of organized plunder and criminality, however, they pale in comparison to the dangers unleashed by the current era of global trade and terrorism.
"Fifty years ago, for the generation that first watched ‘ On the Waterfront,’the challenges of securing ports and docks could remain pretty distant ones for most Americans who weren’t directly involved," Allan Griebenow, chief executive officer of Axcess Inc., a Carrollton, Texas-based developer of transportation security technologies, told HSToday. "In the 21st century, the threats of pilferage or even drug smuggling have been superseded by something far more sinister, and the threat is visceral."
In the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, not only security experts but the general public must live with the constant awareness of a wide variety of terrorist threat scenarios, including the use of commercial cargo containers to smuggle weapons of mass destruction, seizure of a large cargo ship for use as a collision weapon and attacks on oil tankers or other ships containing volatile materials in port.
In addition to the potentially catastrophic costs in human life one or more of these threats could cause, the indirect economic consequences would also be astronomical. A 2002 port security war game that simulated a nine-day shutdown of all ports in the United States reckoned a minimum immediate loss of $58 billion. The Brookings Institute estimates that a successful terror attack with weapons of mass destruction smuggled into the US could amount to over $1 trillion.
Given the stakes, it’s not surprising that public attention to and concern with cargo and port security has reached a near-obsessive point. Witness the popular furor over foreign management of port operations, an issue that, five years ago, would have been the concern of perhaps a handful of wonks. Or the fact that tens of millions of adult Americans can tell you in a second what percent of all incoming containers are currently physically inspected, a statistic that once would have been the most arcane bit of trivia on championship Jeopardy!
"It’s become a major public pastime to play Monday morning quarterback on the progress or lack thereof of port security," Griebenow said, "which, for those of us on the front lines, can often seem unfair when the reality is cargo security is quite a bit better than it was even two or three years ago, and getting better every year."
The years since 9/11 have seen a variety of serious attempts to identify and close the gaps in cargo security. US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is in charge of two major programs designed to prevent terrorists from smuggling weapons or operators into the United States: the Container Security Initiative, or CSI, and the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism, called C-TPAT. Under CSI, US customs inspectors are stationed at dozens of ports across the world to review cargo manifests sent before a ship leaves port in order to try to flag suspect cargo before it embarks. Under C-TPAT, shipping companies voluntarily agree to implement tighter security measures in exchange for faster clearance through customs.
The Maritime Transportation Security Act, passed in 2003, calls for development of technology for non-intrusive detection of crime at US ports and enhancement of cargo security through increased intelligencecollection on inter-modal transport and private sector in-transit visibility of cargo.
"Still," Griebenow acknowledged, "on balance, all that bitching is a good thing, because progress, even though it’s real, isn’t nearly as fast as it should be or has to be."
Plenty of evidence supports his feeling of frustration. In May 2005, two Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports outlined numerous problems in both C-TPAT and CSI. In "Key Cargo Security Programs Can Be Improved", GAO found, for instance, that not all high-risk cargo identified at foreign ports was inspected and that information supplied in manifests transmitted to Customs officials was inadequate or inaccurate. In "Enhancements Made, But Implementation and Sustainability Remain Key Challenges", it also found a lack of minimum standards for X-ray and other detection equipment, and wide disparities in penetration capability and speed among equipment used at ports involved in CSI.
"People have been expecting a silver-bullet solution that can be applied universally to just solve the container security question everywhere in one fell swoop," observed Joe Reiss, marketing director of Billerica, Mass.-based security systems developer AS&E. "The theory has been that this dream product would combine in one easily affordable unit full intrusion-detection capability to protect against unauthorized access, accurately detect radiation, chemical and other hazardous materials, provide real-time location tracking of each container and instantly communicate all relevant actionable data at any point during loading, embarkation, docking and unloading."
While such a dream technology may well be ultimately feasible, Griebenow believes, in the real world its costs would remain unaffordable. "The fact is," he said, "any security technology has to be implemented in the context of limits in people, processes and budgets."
While awaiting such a solution, however, there have been discernible signs of progress on a number of fronts. Among them are important public and private initiatives. Operation Safe Commerce was launched in November 2002 by the Transportation Department and US Customs to test new technology and products at three of the country’s busiest ports: Los Angeles/Long Beach in California, New York and New Jersey and Seattle, Wash. In 2002 the Strategic Council on Security Technologies launched the Smart and Secure Trade Lines initiative to foster development of standards for asset tracking and identification technology.
Perhaps most promisingly, a new generation of technologies — designed to radically increase the precision with which potentially problematic shipments can be identified and the percentage of containers inspected — has left the beta stage and become more widely accessible both to public security officials and commercial shippers.
"While there’s still no silver bullet on the immediate horizon," Reiss noted, "there are big positive steps governments and the private sector can take right now that can significantly enhance security at our ports and borders."
Scanning at the dock
Given the sheer magnitude of shipping volume (recently estimated at 10 million containers) entering US ports, it has long been obvious that manually inspecting each container is impossible. Given that inevitable constraint, a first line of defense in container security has to be the deployment of scanning detection technology to detect the most dangerous materials that might be hidden within a shipping container, namely nuclear and chemical ones that could serve as components of weapons of mass destruction.
Unfortunately, in the early aftermath of 9/11, the legacy gamma-ray scanning equipment available was designed for an entirely different class of threat — drug smuggling.
"In the post 9/11 period, in 2002 and 2003, CBP and port and border facilities found themselves pressed and compelled to do something," recalled Peter Kant, vice-president of government affairs at Hawthorne, Calif.-based Rapiscan Systems. "But often what you find, though, is that under pressure people rush to install more of the technology they have, which isn’t always the technology they need."
The problem is much of that legacy technology was more appropriate to the era of "Miami Vice" than that of "24."
"Basic gamma ray scanners of the kind most ports have invested in serve very well for what they were developed to do, which was drug interdiction," Kant continued. "If you’re looking for something that’s going to be smuggled in bulk like drugs, they work well. But they only achieve about 40 percent penetration of a container. When you’re dealing with antiterror detection, an entirely new set of needs comes into play. Smaller threat quantities become key. You can no longer work with 40 percent penetration. You need 99 percent.
"As technology developers, we’ve got a dual challenge now," Reiss added. "Not only are the stakes and magnitude of security challenges higher than those faced when our biggest problems were stealing and drug smuggling, but the range and variety of potential problems to guard against are wider than ever. So we need to constantly push innovation simultaneously in the direction of both maximum flexibility and robustness."
RFID, global location and smart containers
The notion of smart container technology had its roots in meeting military needs for tracking and ensuring delivery of critical supplies to US troops during the first Gulf War. Alarmed at reports showing that nearly a third of containers shipped to the Middle East were lost or unaccounted for when needed, the US Department of Defense — in partnership with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency — tested the then still largely unknown technology of RFID (radio frequency identification), attaching microchips to containers. The chips contained critical information about the item’s contents and condition and could be read at key checkpoints throughout the transportation route.
The smart container is an integrated system that can support multiple sensing elements inside the container, including radioactivity, light, acoustics, temperature and the condition of the door. This includes not only unauthorized opening of the container but any other forms of tampering.
In its simplest form, a smart container would include the means of detecting whether someone has broken into a sealed container and would have the ability to communicate that information to a shipper or security authority via satellite or wireless.
"The holy grail of a totally seamless solution integrating sensors, RFID, global positioning and wireless has now been endorsed by numerous vendors," said Griebenow. "And the technology is on the horizon to make it possible for every single container in the world to be monitored anywhere on earth in real time, whether in the hull of an oceangoing vessel or inside a closed container. But the real issue is still cost. Put simply, the cost of the electronics, plus transmission cost of data, remains prohibitive for most companies."
Griebenow nonetheless believes now is the time to act. "Using RFID tags off the shelf," he said, "systems can be deployed quickly to provide tracking and monitoring protection within budget constraints. Digital video surveillance can be deployed at strategic locations to capture tag reads at entrances, exits and strategic points around a ship or facility."
Lani Fritts, chief operating officer of Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Savi Networks, agreed, but stressed that coherent government policies will be key to making wide adoption of next-generation tools a reality. "One big gap is that, so far, despite sporadic attempts, there’sbeen no coherent body of regulatory code to refer to," he explained. "The natural response of many shippers is, ‘ Why should we invest hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars now when we might find out in a year or two we don’t meet requirements and have to start the whole process over again?’For that reason, only early adopters have really moved heavily into upgrading."
Still, Fritts remained confident container inspection modernization will ramp up considerably in the next year. "One major edge the smart container concept has," he said, "is that a compelling [return on investment] business case can be made for it strictly in terms of efficiencies gained for the supply chain and cost-cutting. Often with security technology, those kinds of returns aren’t as apparent in the short run. So, ultimately, it may be this synergy of economics and necessity that puts port security levels where they need to be."
The recent debates over who should operate American ports generated lots of heat. They may also have provided some light, however, by galvanizing attention around one incontrovertible fact: Regardless of who manages port operations, there is no room for complacency or satisfaction about the security currently in place at US ports.
If there’s any consensus to come out of the Dubai debate, it hopefully will be that failure to think inside the box and to deploy the best available tools to radically ramp up the level and quality of container inspection and tracking is inexcusable.
Of course, the current technologies are only one piece of a far more complex puzzle, involving a deeper rethinking and streamlining of the processes in place throughout the global shipping supply chain. By bringing unprecedented capabilities to bear on port security, however, developers of next-generation cargo inspection and tracking tools have made it much easier for public and private authorities to make positive investments sooner rather than later, and much harder for anyone to rationalize or excuse inertia.
High-energy scanning
Cargo security vendors have introduced an array of high-energy scanners to check cargo for contraband or dangerous substances.
Rapiscan’s Eagle line of detection scanners can inspect objects of up to 11 feet in width. With its 9MV linear accelerator, it can deliver 425mm penetration — see through about 12 inches of steel and 10 to 11 inches at the edges of the beam, for example. Currently installed at the Port of Baltimore, the machine can scan up to 140 cargo containers a day.
Other limitations of conventional portal detection systems are their inability to locate shielded materials and their tendency to produce false alarms. As Peter Kant, vice-president of government affairs at Rapiscan, put it, "All sorts of everyday food items set these portals off, so in many cases you had so many false alarms that security people were just forced to shut them off as more trouble than they were worth. To address these issues, Rapiscan is introducing active detection radiation portals that can detect and identify specific isotopes, as well as integrating higher energy X-ray technology able to penetrate shielding within containers."
The Integrated Container Inspection System (ICIS) from Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC), based in LaJolla, Calif., offers a new, integrated-system solution. When equipped with SAIC’s high-speed radiographic imaging, radiation scanning and optical character recognition capabilities, ICIS can scan high volumes of containers in the normal flow of traffic at the gates or on the quay. Just as important, ICIS can integrate data from these and many other sources, including terminal security, automation and management systems, for use in security and productivity applications.
ICIS can collect data from cargo-scanning systems throughout the terminal, including legacy and third-party systems. The system offershigh-speed scanning capabilities, including the Portal VACIS (Vehicle and Cargo Inspection System), and can be deployed in conjunction with existing vehicle control points, such as weigh scales. As the vehicle leaves the checkpoint, the trailer passes through the scanning array. The system displays the contents of the container, while saving the image with a video snapshot of the container. This saved information is immediately available for prompt tracking of the container whenever the need arises. The Portal VACIS system has the capability to scan more than 120 containers per hour, and accommodates lane widths to 20 ft. (6.1m) with scan coverage of 8 inches to 14 feet 6 inches (0.2m – 4.4m) vertically.
The ICIS suite of products also includes a Radiation Portal Monitor (RPM), which is a complete vehicle monitoring system used for the rapid detection of unknown hidden radioactive sources in moving vehicles. A full-color console guides a gatehouse operator to each radiation alarm, linking the alarm to a passing vehicle. Using the Radiation Portal Monitor System at a border crossing can help provide radiation detection of hidden sources and nuclear materials that could potentially become a threat to national security. Use in an industrial application can help a producer, or consumer, of scrap metal catch costly hidden radioactive sources before they enter or exit a facility.
Another recently developed SAIC product called EXPLORANIUM AT-900 Radiation Portal Monitor scans vehicles and containers for radioactive sources. Positive radiation identification triggers audible and visual alarms for the system operator to follow up and classify with a handheld detector and identifier.
Though most of its products, including ICIS, were originally developed for military uses, SAIC has already begun to introduce ICIS to the shipping industry. The company is working with the Hong Kong Container Terminal Operators Association in a pilot project to incorporate ICIS into live operations at two terminals. Hong Kong International Terminals is using ICIS to scan containers arriving by truck at the entry gate. And at Modern Terminals, a pair of ICIS systems is scanning containers as they arrive at the entry gate and the barge quay.
AS&E’s new OmniView Relocatable Gantry System, released in fall 2005, is a detector on rails that scans containers and cargo as it moves past them. It can handle about 24 trucks per hour.
The system combines a number of advanced technologies to create a single comprehensive cargo inspection system. AS&E claims it is the only multi-view, X-ray inspection tool providing high penetration of dense materials and liquids. It also discriminates between organic and inorganic material and produces clear, photo-like images that are easy to interpret. One option provides radioactive threat detection.
By combining high penetration transmission X-rays with Z backscatter technology, AS&E says its gantry system provides the most reliable means of uncovering contraband and threatening materials in densely loaded cargo containers. The system uses "shaped energy" technology — a technology patented by AS&E that "shapes" X-rays or other energy into focused beams that can filter out non-essential radiation, but deeply penetrate densely loaded containers and liquids.
The Z Backscatter imaging offers varying views of the cargo being inspected while improving the ability to interpret X-ray images. It can be configured with different numbers of Z Backscatter X-ray detectors, allowing different viewpoints of the object being inspected. Further, Z Backscatter creates images that highlight low atomic number ( "low Z" ) materials, such as explosives, drugs, alcohol and tobacco. These and other organic materials stand out as bright objects and are easy to identify.
Backscatter was used last year in a pilot program to screen ferry-bound automobiles for explosives at the Cape May-Lewes Ferry in Cape May, NJ, and is part of the Transportation Security Administration’s Automobile Inspection Lanes project.
The promise of Radio Frequency Identification
Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology is now considered key to ramping up commercial cargo security by providing a way to assure control over the fate of containers once they’ve been loaded onto ships.
Savi Networks
"Inspecting containers prior to loading onto ships provides little real assurance against subsequent tampering," Lani Fritts, chief operating officer of Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Savi Networks, explained. "To do that requires enabling containers to communicate en route."
Savi Networks provides global shippers with an RFID network in major ports worldwide, providing continuously updated information on freight as containers move through the supply chain. The firm’s SaviTrak product provides real-time information from source to destination about container and cargo status, including location, condition of contents and security of shipment from tampering.
NaviTag, Hingham, Mass., has designed a unit to be attached to a carrier-supplied container or trailer without modifications. Its integrated design includes a transmitter, antennae, locking mechanism and door and light sensors. Powered by three standard D-cell flashlight batteries, it reports position and door-open conditions on a pre-programmed basis throughout the cargo’s journey to final destination. The unit is about the size of a paperback novel, fits on any oceangoing vessel, operates for 75 days and can be attached to the locking bars or the exterior of the container door.
The system initiates each cargo tracking session by associating a NaviTag with the cargo’s container number and its ultimate destination and then transmitting the information directly to satellites overhead. The satellite relays the information to a network of ground stations strategically positioned around the world.
A product from WhereNet, based in Santa Clara, Calif., called Constant Visibility provides real time location and status information on cargo. By integrating GPS technology from partner SkyBitz, based in Sterling, Va., Constant Visibility provides continuous tracking and control from the time the container is sealed until it is delivered and opened. Updated status and alerts are automatically transmitted whenever the container is moved, or if the container’s integrity is violated.
ActiveTag, an RFID product patented by Axcess Inc., uses small, battery-powered tags that, when automatically activated, transmit a wireless message typically 30 to 100 feet away to a hidden palm-size receiver. The receiver is connected via an industry standard interface to existing security alarm equipment or networked on the existing corporate network. The system can also trigger a security video recording.
While end-to-end network solutions remain cost prohibitive for many institutions, Allan Griebenow, CEO of Axcess Inc., Carrollton, Texas, sees the Axcess product as a transitional solution positioned to be affordable enough even for smaller shippers, who can then upgrade on a component-by-component basis.

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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