An update on ISO activities regarding electronic container seals


Craig K. Harmon, Chairman, ISO TC 122/104 JWG, President & CEO of Q.E.D. Systems, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, USA



Background on RFID standards

On June 7th, 1999 a New Work Item Proposal was filed with the Inter national Organization for Standardization (ISO) entitled, ‘Radio-frequency communication protocol for electronic recognition of seal status and number, and container number.’ By the conclusion of the 2nd meeting of the working group assigned this work item (ISO TC 104/SC 4/WG 2) on July 29th, the title had been modified to ‘Radiofrequency communication protocol for electronic seal for freight containers’ with a scope to develop an ‘international standard (that) specifies a RF communication protocol between an electronic seal and its reader.’

From these promising beginnings began what is now known as the Work Item, ISO 18185, ‘Freight containers – Electronic container seals.’ As can be seen from the initial work item and its revised title, the original intent was to provide a minimum means of interoperability of electronic devices securing freight containers. This minimum interoperability standard would simply identify the data content of the seal and a wireless means to communicate the seal’s data to wireless interrogator.

It should also be noted that another wireless IT standard had been developed in WG 2’s parent committee (SC 4) relating to the identification of the freight container, namely ISO 10374, ‘Freight containers – Automatic identification.’ This standard was originally published in 1991 and amended in 1995. ISO 10374, renamed, ‘Freight containers – RF automatic identification,’ is presently under revision by the ISO TC 122 (Packaging)/ISO TC 104 (Freight container) Joint Working Group (JWG), Supply chain applications of RFID.

From anti-theft to anti-terrorism

Now when ISO 18185 first began in 1999, the prevailing rationale for this work item was to prevent pilferage of freight while in-transit and to enable custodians of the container to identify with relative ease whether the container’s integrity had been breached. In September 2001 everything changed and the focus was no longer to keep the bad guys from taking things out of containers, but moreover to keep the bad guys from putting something into a container. Several industry analysts believe our marine transportation system to be vulnerable to terrorist attack.

Such an attack would instantly debilitate the US port system with a devastating economic effect. “Independent analysis and the experiences of 9/11 and the west coast dock workers strike demonstrates an economic impact of a forced closure of US ports for a period of only eight days to have been in excess of $58 billion to the US economy”, stated Rear Admiral Craig Bone of the Department of Homeland Security in 2005, before the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee of the US House of Representatives.

Such is but the economic impact of the forced closures, not including the additional expenses for incident response and the procedures to inspect whatever number of containers would be deemed to require inspection. A single terrorist attack within the U.S. maritime shipping system would equal or exceed the cost of the 2002 West Coast dockworker’s labour dispute.

Defining the standard

The original 1999 work stated that the deliverable was to be a standard that defined:

1. The data structure within the electronic seal

2. The communication protocol between seal and interrogator

3. A frequency available world-wide

In August 2000 (Tel Aviv), the Working Group (WG) unanimously agreed to adopt a single frequency band. In October 2000 (Cape Town), the WG unanimously agreed that the following frequencies should be considered

1. 315 MHz band (exact frequency definition not available)

2. 433.05 – 434.79 MHz

3. 862 – 928 MHz

In late 2001, the WG 2 parent committee, TC 104/SC 4 circulated an initial ballot of ISO 18185 to participating countries with the results reported in February 2002 (Copenhagen). For this Committee Draft (CD) the ballot results were 10 in favour and 1 opposed. The single opposing vote was from Japan that had requested, electronic container seals utilise a passive backscatter system operating at 2450 MHz. In September of 2002, All Set Tracking introduced a new electronic seal operating at 2450 MHz and set upon a campaign to derail 18185. In an open letter to the maritime community, the All Set CEO stated, “in line with the efforts to prevent terrorism initiated by the US Government, we understand that the International Maritime Organization (IMO) plans to consider a mandate for shipping container integrity at its upcoming December 2002 Conference on Maritime Security. The proposal presently calls for shippers to ensure that loaded containers must be sealed either with a mechanical high security seal or, alternatively, an electronic seal conforming to the pending draft ISO standard DIS 18185.” His 21-page ‘white paper’ raised three basic issues:

1. The standard contains no provisions addressing security

2. The standard embraces frequencies that are not available in Japan

3. The standard embraces technologies other than his

What was interesting in this white paper argument was the claim that there were no provisions for security, when in fact the issues of security were discussed within the WG, but were advised that such issues were beyond the remit of a work item to develop a communications protocol. However, their arguments apparently influenced several other countries because at the conclusion of the Draft International Standard (DIS) balloting, 10 out of the 17 voting members of the committee had voted in favour of the standard, two votes short of the two-thirds majority vote required.

The committee met in December 2002 (Atlanta) and in reviewing the comments, the ballot resolution group discussed 2450 MHz at length and agreed to not include it in 18185. There was significant doubt regarding the capabilities of the frequency in the marine terminal environment and the 2450 MHz product proposed by All Set did not exist. The majority of the Ballot Resolution Group felt that the implementation of that frequency should be well vetted.

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