In the past seven months, more than 1,000 containers have been shipped across the Pacific in an ambitious project, backed by some of the world's biggest port operators and a plethora of technology companies, aimed at tightening trade security. The initiative, dubbed Smart and Secure Tradelanes (SST), is shipping the boxes through Singapore and Hong Kong to terminals in Seattle and Long Beach in an attempt to see how closely it is possible to monitor in-transit goods bound for the United States market. The project is also being tested across the Atlantic from maritime gateways, such as Felixstowe in Britain, to make sure the emerging manufacturing centres in Eastern Europe are not shut out of the equation. At the core of the initiative is something called a 'smart lock', technology which will alert shippers, consignees and transporters in real time if the shipment has been compromised, or if the circumstances surrounding its delivery are peculiar enough to warrant inspection. The first phase of the initiative has included 15 'major ports', six international container shipping lines, 65 companies and 20 shippers, one of which is multinational retailer, Target, according to the US-based Strategic Council on Security Technology. The initiative's sheer size, securing the 7.8 million containers which enter the US each year against terrorism, and the quality of its participants - three of the terminal operators involved reportedly handle 70 per cent of the world's box trade - would predicate its findings to serve as the industry's benchmark for container security technology. This possibility was enhanced late last month by the disclosure that China International Marine Containers, the world's biggest boxmaker, had also signed on. Smart Lock technology is quickly becoming an industry of its own, and a potentially lucrative one at that. However, any developing strategies in this field - and SST is not alone - should be viewed in this light: all initiatives are moving ahead without the International Standardisation Organisation (ISO) having set standards for the emerging industry. The ISO has yet to set universal goals for what the industry (and in the long run the consumer) needs the smart-lock technology to achieve. For example, is it sufficient for the locks to solely protect the integrity of the containers and their goods? Or should their capabilities be extended to recording and storing data on the shipper and consignee? If so, would it be sufficient to restrict that data to names, addresses and box contents, or should the locks also contain historical data which may make it easier for global Customs agents to spot trading anomalies which may alert the authorities to potentially dangerous shipments? If a specific businessman has a history of shipping 20 containers a week from Malaysia as part of a consignment for Wal-Mart and one week he ships 57, it may be worth a look before the shipment reaches a crowded metropolitan area such as Los Angeles. The technology being tested by the SST consortium uses radio frequency identification tags, another area where there have been no standards set for smart locks. A paper released earlier this year by the World Shipping Council, comprising the dominant liner companies plying the US market, warned of the dangers of allowing such a capital-intensive industry to develop several incompatible frequencies and technological solutions. 'A standard for e-seals, unlike standards for manual security seals, involves not just the device itself, but a very expensive and extensive supporting infrastructure of [smart-lock] readers at tens of thousands of landside locations around the world as well,' it said. 'It is essential that any e-seal technology standard-setting exercise be complete, thorough, well accepted, and sufficiently final so that the standard will not require changes for a significant time period.' Top officials in the SST consortium believe the question of whether or not private-sector technology providers should wait for the, admittedly glacial, process of setting standards is a chicken or egg scenario. They believe the industry leaders have a duty to start experimenting with the technology, learn from their experiences, and use their collective knowledge to refine and evolve the technology. It is through utilisation that the industry will be able to see how standards can emerge, they say. Given what is at stake and that the initial capital outlay will make it prohibitively expensive to provide competition (rather like container terminal operations) or change direction once the industry gets rolling, Below Deck has to wonder if they are right.