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American Shipper

DHS: Combo container scanner not ready for prime time

DHS: Combo container scanner not ready for prime time

   Department of Homeland Security officials say they have embraced an automated cargo inspection system being used by private sector terminal operators in Hong Kong, but caution that the concept still requires extensive testing before the government can consider using the system to scan every container.

   Several attempts have been made in recent weeks to add amendments to cargo and port security legislation that would require 100 percent inspections of all maritime containers at foreign ports.

   “It’s one of the most misunderstood concepts,” said Jayson Ahern, assistant commissioner for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, at last week’s quarterly meeting of industry experts that advises the Department of Homeland Security on commercial trade and security issues. “It’s been oversold by people who don’t know what’s going on.”

   The system in use in Hong Kong has the ability to take radiographic images of containers, radiation readings, video, and optical scans of equipment identification numbers as trucks enter the terminal gate at normal speeds of 10 to 15 miles per hour, offering the potential advantage of conducting inspections without slowing down cargo operations.

   The Integrated Container Inspection System (ICIS) has captured data on hundreds of thousands of containers at the Hutchison International and Modern terminals in the port during the past 18 months, and was seized on by lawmakers during the Dubai Ports World controversy over lax port security as a way to protect from a terrorist attack. San Diego-based defense contractor SAIC combined several off-the-shelf technologies to develop the system, which has been heavily promoted by border security authority Stephen Flynn as a way to verify the integrity of shipments headed to the United States prior to departure.

   Although the technology appears able to conduct non-intrusive scans on a limited basis, there are no procedures or resources in place for Customs officers to efficiently analyze the huge volumes of data generated and respond to anomalies that indicate a possible threat, Ahern said.

   Part of the misconception, too, is that the two terminals are conducting 100 percent screening of all containers, when in fact the machines are set up on a single inbound lane, he noted. Those lanes, however, can handle about 300 trucks per hour, far more than at land border ports in the United States. Vehicle and cargo inspection systems currently deployed at U.S. ports and border checkpoints require staging of trucks or shipping boxes, several seconds to pass through a portal and minutes to analyze the image. Radiation portal monitors are separately set up at truck exit gates.

   DHS and CBP officials were reluctant to consider the privately funded initiative at first because of concerns that it would lead to a comprehensive screening approach at odds with the existing risk-management policy that targets suspicious containers based on intelligence for X-ray and radiation exams. The system began to receive more serious departmental attention after the Government Accountability Office criticized U.S. cargo security programs, and the Wall Street Journal published a story last summer about U.S. government indifference towards receiving data feeds from the private sector effort to assist with overseas inspections. Pressure from Congress since the DP World flap to close gaps in port security has also spurred DHS to quicken the pace for evaluating ICIS.

   Ahern, who visited the Hong Kong facility in December, denied that CBP was dragging its feet by insisting on further testing. Acting CBP Commissioner Deborah Spero recently returned from Hong Kong and said the agency “is excited about the idea.”

   The next step is to study whether the system is compatible with CBP’s Container Security Initiative, a program whereby foreign customs authorities use high-tech imaging and radiation detection machines to inspect targeted exports at the request of CBP officers, Ahern said. Making the integrated system a tool for CSI suggests that the agency wants to use it on a limited basis, perhaps as a way to inspect suspicious containers without taking them to a dedicated exam site outside the terminal, and not to conduct wholesale exams of the entire universe of containers. That would help shippers and carriers by eliminating transfers for legitimate cargo and saving them money in associated inspection and transport fees, as well as delays that could cause a container to miss its scheduled vessel call.

   “The important lesson we have learned is private sector container screening can be compatible with the U.S. government’s layered security strategy, and is another tool to further our ability to identify and address risks in an expedited manner,” Val Oxford, director of DHS’s Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, testified Thursday before the House Homeland Security subcommittee on prevention of nuclear and biological attack. “However, such efforts must supplement, not replace, the need for advance data reporting and targeted inspection at ports at home and abroad.”

   CBP’s main criteria are to make sure the technology doesn’t generate too many false alarms, that it is not too costly for the private sector to implement, and that protocols are developed for how customs officials and the terminals deal with alarms, according to Ahern.

   The agency, along with the Department of Energy and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, is reviewing 21,000 data files supplied by SAIC to determine an acceptable alarm rate and threshold settings for warning signals, Ahern said. The devices have to be set above the levels of naturally occurring background radiation, and may require a protective shield on the ground to minimize nuisance alarms that require inspectors to double-check the radiation signature with handheld isotope identifiers.

   “We are committed to working with the Hong Kong terminals and SAIC to come up with appropriate threshold settings and alarm protocols,” Ahern said.

   Also to be resolved is how to capture readings from containers that arrive by feeder vessel instead of truck for transfer to a cross-ocean freighter, whether to scan all containers or just those bound for the United States, and which U.S. or foreign government agencies would receive the information collected by the terminals.

   Advanced spectroscopic radiation detectors under development should be able to identify the specific radioactive isotopes and rule out benign sources, thereby reducing the need for secondary inspections to resolve radiation alarms, Ahern said.

   CBP has had to resolve 318,000 nuisance alarms since the agency began installing radiation portal monitors at U.S. ports of entry in the past three years, but hopes that advance spectroscopic technology that can differentiate highly enriched uranium and plutonium isotopes from bananas and ceramic tiles that contain radioactive elements, will reduce the alarm rate, Ahern said. Those systems could be available within 12 to 18 months, he said.

   Even if the technology can capture all the images, it remains an open question to what extent they will be analyzed considering the amount of labor required to review thousands of scans each day.

   It will take three to five years before software is available to automatically analyze the X-ray-type images for anomalies so that customs officers do not have to manually do the job, Ahern said.

   “Technology will help us reduce the false alarms, but it is still a considerable way off,” he said.

   Meanwhile, CBP continues to deploy radiation portal monitors at U.S. seaports and land border crossings as a last line of defense against terrorist attack and has screened 80 million conveyances. So far the agency has installed 225 large-scale detection machines at seaports, through which 57 percent of all containers now pass, according to Ahern. The recent completion of more monitors at the Port of Los Angles-Long Beach increased throughput through the machines from 41 percent in early March. By the end of the year, 80 percent of all sea containers will get radiation checks and by the end of 2007, when 621 devices are scheduled to be in place, that figure will rise to 98 percent, he said.

   The first two mobile radiation portal monitors were recently deployed at the Port of Newark and 58 more will be available by the end of the year, Ahern testified Thursday.

   Ahern added at the COAC meeting that once all major container terminals are secured with radiation portal monitors CBP will turn its attention to figuring out how to use the technology in bulk terminals and small container ports.