US ploughing on with smart technology plan

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 November, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 November, 2003, 12:00am

Despite the reservations of some of the world's biggest shipping lines, the United States is pushing ahead with 'smart' technology initiatives in its urgent bid to protect US-bound maritime trade from being used in terrorist attacks.

The Bureau of Customs and Border Protection said yesterday that in January it would begin testing 'smart containers' with Asian and European exporter members of the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism initiative.

Smart containers can reportedly be programmed to film the packer and detect and monitor intrusion while in transit. They are also supposed to be able to detect changes in temperature and humidity, and warn if hazardous cargo is present, such as radioactive materials.

Over recent weeks, US customs commissioner Robert Bonner has been vigorously promoting the smart container initiative as the last hurdle standing between compliant shippers and elusive 'green lane' access to the lucrative American consumer market.

But shipping lines, which own more than half of the 20 million containers in use, are hesitant to back what they see as largely unproven technology.

'There are 100 questions about smart technology which have not been answered so far. But they're still pushing ahead with it,' said an Asian carrier executive in charge of supply-chain solutions.

The smart container is the successor to the controversial smart lock, developed to allow users and US customs officials to monitor the location and integrity of a container and its contents during the journey from factory to end-market.

The locks are also meant to record data, theoretically allowing customs officials to pre-read what is in the container as well as a history of the person or company sending the goods.

This data, entered by the exporter at origin, can be used to compile shipment patterns and spot trading anomalies which may indicate a high-risk shipment requiring inspection. But aside from the US$6.6 billion it would have cost last year to equip the world's containerised shipments with disposable $25 smart locks, carriers said the technology might not meet the needs of the industry.

Mark Tierney, the general manager, safety, security and compliance at Maersk Sealand, told the Journal of Commerce Online yesterday: 'I think we should not overestimate what technology can do until it is proven to hit the goals we need to hit - enhancing security without impeding the flow of cargo.'

The smart locks and their smart container cousins are the brainchild of the Strategic Council for Security Technology under its Safe and Secure Tradelanes initiative.

Carrier executives, particularly those in the World Shipping Council, have been sceptical about how much real security the electronic locks and their land-based readers provide, claiming the electronic seals are just as vulnerable as their steel predecessors.

'Electronic seals have not been proven to provide any greater security than mechanical seals,' the council said in a September report.

'A shipping container is a sturdy, steel box; it is not smart. It would be a serious security error simply to assume that technology can be applied to shipping containers and solve the problem of container security.'