Electronic Design

High-Tech Tracking Tools Secure Incoming Cargo

"You read about all these terrorists. Most of them came here legally, but they hung around on these expired visas, some for as long as 10 to 15 years. Now, compare that to Blockbuster. You're two days late with a video, and those people are all over you. Let's put Blockbuster in charge of immigration."

I laughed at this observation in a "Life's Truths" e-mail from a friend. But despite the chuckle, its sentiments are pretty stale. First, Blockbuster's late-fee policies were so reviled, the company had to change its business model. More importantly, the joke discounts the results of the serious engineering expertise that has been poured into the U.S. Department of Homeland Security since the September 11, 2001 attacks.

Listening to John Kerry in the presidential debates, one would have thought that little progress had been made toward securing our ports. Sure, there's still more to be done. Yet the accomplishments of the last three years, as detailed during the recent Security Cargo Summit in Washington, D.C., reflect an ambitious adoption of sophisticated tracking and reporting technologies.

Since the attacks, the Department of Homeland Security has launched a five-point strategy for tracking inbound cargo:

  • The 24-Hour Rule requires carriers to submit advance electronic cargo declarations for all shipments at least 24 hours before the cargo is loaded aboard U.S.-bound vessels at foreign ports.
  • The National Targeting Center applies advanced logic via its Automated Targeting System to evaluate the manifests of all cargo headed to the U.S. The program uses risk-management intelligence to identify all potentially threatening shipments.
  • All containers identified as potential risks are inspected using non-intrusive inspection (NII) and radiation detection.
  • The Container Security Initiative (CSI) identifies and inspects high-risk containers before they leave a foreign CSI port for the U.S. CSI operates in 34 of the world's largest ports.
  • The Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism (C-TPAT) is a private-sector organization that offers participants expedited cargo processing in exchange for tightened security and tracking at various points along the supply chain.

At the Cargo Summit, Robert Bonner, commissioner of the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) within the Department of Homeland Security, highlighted the central mission that technology has played. Bonner pointed out that since the attacks, Homeland Security has more than tripled the number of large-scale gamma-ray and x-ray imaging systems at our ports of entry. The department also has installed a plethora of radiation detection equipment: hundreds of highly sensitive radiation portal monitors and radiation-isotope identifying devices as well as more than 10,500 personal radiation detectors, one worn by every officer at every port of entry.

Still, Homeland Security continues to look to the leading edge of electronics design for ways to improve the system. Engineers with security clearance are in huge demand (see "Hiring Boom Is On For Security-Cleared Engineers," p. 25). Goals include implementation of more secure, smarter containers like the Smart Box "as soon as the technology is there to do so," said Bonner, noting that these electronically tagged containers would be implemented as part of an enhanced C-TPAT partnership program, coupled with guidelines for inspections and electronic manifest creation.

The agency also looks to expand the CSI pre-shipment inspection from 34 ports to cover "95% of the volume of containers through which the enemy could attempt to move a container loaded with a weapon of mass destruction." Also, the agency wants to expand its advanced shipping information to trace a data chain back to the origin of a shipment, rather than just gathering information related to the last port-of-call ahead of the 24-hour advance notification.

Despite all the publicity surrounding Wal-Mart as the driving force in the adoption of RFID, the government may leapfrog the retailer's tagging program. Homeland Security has announced that the US VISIT program will test RFID at ports in Arizona, New York, and Washington this summer. RFID transponders will be issued to pedestrians and drivers to create an automated record of visitors' arrival and departure times. No personal information will be recorded on the tag. Instead, these simple "license plates" will connect with information secured in the US VISIT database. (The privacy issue is a concern for foreigners visiting the U.S., as the US VISIT program also requires fingerprints and digital photos from visitors at the point of entry.)

It seems the government is more than a fast study in the automated-data-capture field. It's certainly taking to new security technologies in a way that couldn't have been imagined prior to September 11, 2001.

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