DHS to soon issue specs for electronic container security device
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security will publish early this year vendor specifications for a container security device that international shippers and carriers can use to meet cargo security requirements, according to Todd Owen, executive director of cargo and conveyance security at U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
A tamper-proof container security device that can detect and send alarms about door openings was once considered the key to launching the Green Lane concept for importers with added shipment protection. But the agency has gone back to the drawing board after souring on the GE Security device it has tested for more than two years. CBP's main concerns revolve around the rate of false positives the devices allegedly generate and the reliability of the fixed readers that would be installed at ports and other cargo nodes.
Work is continuing on a device that detects unauthorized intrusions through the container's doors, but DHS officials increasingly are downplaying the benefits of such a device in favor of one with sensors that can detect breaches through any wall of a shipping box.
The DHS Science and Technology Directorate will issue the technical requirements to which a CSD must be built early in the new year, and then conduct a series of laboratory tests followed by field testing in maritime trade lanes, Owen told a large gathering of industry representatives at last month's Trade Symposium in Washington.
Once industry develops a device that meets the government's standards, DHS will decide how to drive their use. Options on the table include mandating use of the devices across the board or on certain high-risk trade lanes, or creating incentives for voluntary industry adoption, possibly as a recognized best practice for the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism supply chain security program, or a requirement for Tier 3 status in C-TPAT under which trusted importers receive near inspection-free clearance for their containers, Owen said. The SAFE Port Act enacted late last year encourages DHS to consider container security devices for C-TPAT once the technology proves out and is certified.
'It's very premature to have a discussion (about a potential policy) at this point because an actual, operational CSD that functions the way we expect it to with a low false alert rate, that meets the performance requirements — that device simply doesn't exist at this point,' Owen said.
CBP Commissioner Ralph Basham seconded that opinion, saying during a press conference, 'At this point I've not been convinced that there is a device out there that is reliable and dependable enough — a security device to stake our confidence in.'
Basham said he is more interested in a device that detects breaches anywhere in the container. Several visits to major ports where large numbers of containers have been repaired with welded pieces of metal brought home the point that terrorists and smugglers could cut a hole in a box and patch it up with relative ease, he said.
'To say we've got a secure container and you just say the doors weren't opened, to me that's not sufficient,' he said. A security device can be another layer of security, but doesn't substitute for knowing what's in the container, which is the goal of scanning and advance data collection programs, he said.
Basham and other DHS officials emphasize that they are not writing off a door sensor, but rather treating it as part of a larger piece of intrusion detection capability when that technology is finally available. DHS officials continue to indicate that six-sided intrusion technology and real-time container tracking is still three to five years away from viable commercial use.
'I’d prefer to concentrate — if the technology is being developed (on) making sure the entire container is tamper-proof. But I’m not suggesting that we don't continue to have security on the doors themselves,' Basham said.
Christopher Koch, president of the World Shipping Council and a frequent critic of proprietary electronic seal and security devices, said he anticipated 'a spring offensive' by technology vendors seeking certification of their 'smart-box' products and urged DHS officials to properly scrutinize the systems to make sure they provide actual security value.
Meanwhile, GE Security is continuing to market its CommerceGuard product without certification from CBP.
(For an in-depth view on how sentiment towards CSDs has evolved at DHS, see the November issue of American Shipper, page 10-18.)