Basham: Box device standard to be published soon
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is close to releasing standards for tamper-proof container security devices, and hopes to complete testing with several products within 60 to 90 days to see if any meet the requirements, Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Ralph Basham said Wednesday.
'I am cautiously optimistic,' Basham said.
The devices, which would be affixed to a container at the point of stuffing to monitor if the doors had been opened in transit, have been a bugaboo for the agency for several years. Early attempts to certify a CSD developed by GE Security foundered after CBP said the device had an unacceptably high false positive rate of more than 1 percent. Officials have long said that a small false alarm rate is necessary because it doesn't have the manpower to respond to alerts on multiple boxes indicating possible breaches.
Speaking at a forum on container security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, Basham suggested that the agency's has loosened its original requirement by saying the agency has successfully managed to deal with high false alarm rates for radiation portal monitors at inbound truck gates, 'so I am confident we will be able to handle what likely will be less than 1 or 2 percent false positives from CSDs.'
How CSDs will become part of the nation's cargo security strategy is still up in the air, but he suggested that the agency is strongly leaning towards making use of the devices a component of the voluntary industry supply chain security program known as the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism.
C-TPAT companies are audited to make sure they follow CBP-approved security plans at their foreign manufacturing and transport locations. Their boxes are granted expedited clearance at the border because of CBP's confidence that their shipments do not contain any dangerous goods. In conjunction with scraping shipping documents for indications of unusual activity, the CSDs are seen as a way to close the security loop on the ocean transport of containerized goods.
Basham said use of the container security device should be a minimum best practice for C-TPAT companies wishing to achieve Tier 3 status — those that go the extra mile beyond the minimum criteria to qualify for virtually inspection-free privileges. Or perhaps CBP should create a fourth tier for companies willing to make the extra investment in security, he wondered.
'Will we require its use or will its use be an incentive or precondition for greater C-TPAT benefits?' he said.
Other protocols that needed to be determined include whether to install CSD readers, which communicate with the devices via radio-frequency identification technology, only at U.S. ports or at the 50-plus foreign ports assisting the United States in overseas inspections through the Container Security Initiative.
The current CSDs primarily are designed to detect door breaches, but DHS is working to develop a device with sensors that can detect breaches through any side of a container. That technology is considered to still be several years away from real-world application.
Basham assured the trade community that CBP would take every step to minimize the impact on business operations when implementing any CSD requirement.
'We will make sure there is a sound and sensible rollout strategy for CSDs and their incorporation as a C-TPAT best practice,' he said.
'The beauty of CBP's Smart Box system is that it is voluntary. Companies can choose the relatively small cost of simple container security devices, approved by CBP, that will lead to faster, more predictable customs processing, or they can choose the cost of less predictable customs clearances and potential delays.
'Device manufacturers have an incentive to keep the price low, because companies will not be required to use the devices. But those who do will be entitled to greater benefits, and it will narrow the haystack of what CBP needs to inspect,' Basham said, ignoring the possibility that Congress might step in and try to mandate the use of such technology on every box entering the country.
A successful CSD program would bring the vision of a 'Green Lane' for the most-trustworthy shippers closer to fruition, he said.
Meanwhile, U.S. Congress should wait for the results from the Secure Freight Initiative's container scanning pilot program before trying to impose a requirement that all 12 million inbound ocean freight boxes be inspected at overseas locations, Basham said.
The test program underway at a half-dozen ports, including Southampton, England; Port Qasim, Pakistan; and Puerto Cortes, Honduras, will give DHS insight into the feasibility of an integrated technical inspection process covering, he said.
CBP uses a risk-management program to sift out a small number of suspicious containers for automated inspections, but the test program is designed to cover all containers moving through a particular gate or port.
The systems being used co-locate large-scale imaging equipment to check container contents for anomalies that don't match the manifest as well as passive radiation detection machines. The readouts are electronically shared with CBP to review for potential threats and make suggestions about which containers should be pulled for more extensive examination. The equipment also takes advantage of technology that can capture images while trucks drive through entrance gates, speeding up the normally time consuming process of laying out containers in staging areas to be scanned.
Scanning 100 percent of containers without the proper system in place that can handle the volume would cause a severe bottleneck for imports, 'and the result would be lower profits and higher transportation costs for U.S. importers,' Basham said.
'It would hand the terrorists a victory on one of their key aims — inflicting serious damage on the U.S. economy — without them having to take any action whatsoever.'
Basham said he was also concerned that precipitous action would be a slap in the face of countries participating in the pilot program. Most are inclined against 100 percent inspection regimes, but are willing to see if a technological solution can be found that doesn't add delay and cost to the transportation system.
CBP is expected to report to Congress in the first quarter of 2008 on the progress of the test programs.
Basham shared the stage at the Washington-based think tank with his predecessor, Robert C. Bonner, who initiated many of the programs during his tenure that have become the foundation of U.S. supply chain security policy, notwithstanding ongoing fine-tuning.