Trying to separate fact from smoke: A critical review of cargo security



Erik Hoffer, Seal Committee Chairman, International Cargo Security Council, NJ, USA


The cargo security initiative is in the development and concept stages. Smoke and mirrors skew the discussions because recommendations presented by many of the experts asked to participate lack the core expertise required to recommend remedies against unforeseen threats. Many of these experts and officials lack a practical understanding of the physics behind seal security and cargo terrorism. Intimate knowledge of intelligence on threat issues is not sufficient background to recommend remedy. Specific knowledge of the physical attributes of security technology is not a substitute for understanding the threat. People who are finally asked to decide on the correct system and course of action may not be intimate with the nexus between science and viable mechanical remedy. Many of those in the know in the US Government and those consultants to the government present options based on perceptions rather than facts which can cost everyone dearly. Any approved plan will ultimately attempt to establish a level of container sealing and monitoring integrity for the entire world supply chain. The system should ideally be able to enhance homeland security, by reducing the threat of attack through cargo entering or leaving any port. By developing a workable intelligence security programme combined with viable security devices, we should be able to identify suspect cargo before it can be placed on a ship heading to its final destination.

The US’s plan for cargo security

Department for Homeland Security and Customs and the Department of Border Protection, who seems to be spearheading the project which includes the plan to cover procedural security for stuffing and shipping containers, physical security for containers in transit, access to ports and cargo yards both the US and abroad, personnel integrity checks for cargo handlers, training of personnel on terrorists threats, awareness of the types of threat, secure manifest procedures and conveyance security dealing with the vessels, drays and ports handling and storing and moving cargo.

This is a broad-based plan, requiring a considerable amount of technology and refinement before a suitable solution can be found. Implementation must include appropriate physical security products used to achieve containment and control of cargo. Such technologies must be suitable to the real world of container cargo shipping. They must be cost effective for both ports and shippers and able to be readily implemented worldwide without development time. Any choice must focus on its ability to detect entry or manipulation of the doors from both an indicative and barrier prospective. Training of personnel must focus on simplicity and consistency which is often lost due to the urgency of this need. Systems that have proven to work in the here-andnow are the order of the day. Implementation of a system that requires a tremendous expenditure in infrastructure will limit approved ports, which will severely impact world trade. Such a system is both detrimental and prejudicial to shippers and ports that cannot come up to speed and thereby becomes the antithesis of free and open trade.

Who is responsible?

People whose jobs it is to secure cargo and whose goals it is to have a successful cargo security initiative are not the same people. Those who pay the bills to ship, carry, handle, receive or load cargo are truly ambivalent about the implementation of such security procedures, products and systems. Many, if not all of them, see such an implementation as an added cost not a necessary benefit. Since their reality is cost vs. profit, not security vs. an imploded economy due to an act of terror, their perspective is radically reduced.

Not that individually they are not concerned about Homeland Security, but having 30+ years in speaking with these companies gives the author that skewed viewpoint: Shippers have always faced the threat of financial loss through theft and damage yet proactive reduction techniques are rarely used. Shippers who know the score on cargo theft in the United States, which exceeds $25 billion annually, still have inherently balked on use of the simplest tools available. The threat has never been higher for theft, tampering, drug smuggling or terrorism, yet the reluctance of most shippers remains consistently steadfast when it comes to the use of security tools at their expense. Even when confronted by a loss, most shippers complain vehemently about spending much more than a $1 on a bolt seal securing a container worth millions.

Now that the threat has become more public and it has grown to include terrorism on the list of loss conditions, have shippers begun to recognise their participation in the cure process? Not really. Tampering, smuggling (piggybacking) contraband into legitimate cargo and the use of your container to transport bombs and people around the world is suddenly real. Those who decide how much to spend for protection need to get on board with these initiatives and work as a team with governments to accomplish the mission at hand.


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