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January 28, 2005

Using a cargo container as a Trojan horse


Last month I mused about the giant ships carrying thousands of cargo containers, ceaselessly making their way across the oceans and seas.

I noted my skepticism about how secure these containers were, and their possible use as a Trojan horse for those who don't have our best interests at heart.

I was, therefore, most interested in Anne Eisenberg's January 20 New York Times article about this very subject.

She noted, among many other things, that seven million containers enter the U.S. every year.

Should you happen to see the excellent film "Spartan" - you'll have to buy or rent the DVD - you'll see just what can be done with a shipping container.

It's not comforting, I'll tell you up front.

Here's the Times story.

    Cargo Containers' Electronic Sensor Says 'Do Not Disturb'

    Millions of cargo containers full of toys, TV's and other consumer products stream into United States ports each year.

    But security experts fear the metal boxes could also be used to transport dangerous freight: terrorist weapons.

    Researchers are working on modifications to the rugged containers, adding electronic monitoring that can keep track of intrusions once the boxes are sealed at a factory and on their way by train, truck and ship.

    General Electric is testing a palm-size security device with a built-in microprocessor and radio.

    The device, which has been tried out on a handful of containers traveling between China and California, generates a magnetic field.

    If the doors of the container move, the field changes, and the microprocessor keeps track of the disturbance.

    At a port or loading dock, the containers can be queried by radio, delivering a record of any intrusions.

    ''The microprocessor is always monitoring the sensor,'' said James Petrizzi, a vice president for engineering in General Electric's security business, who helped develop and test the wireless system.

    In trials, the device communicated with fixed dockside readers, as well as with hand-held readers that could communicate wirelessly.

    ''The system creates a large wireless network where we can interrogate the security device on the container,'' Mr. Petrizzi said.

    The reader notes the time and date of any incursions since the container was sealed.

    The communication between the security device and the reader is encrypted.

    A major manufacturer of containers, the China International Marine Containers Group, incorporated the sensor in 18 of its containers as prototypes to use for the General Electric trials.

    ''We did the trials to make sure that the container and the electronic pack would not be damaged or give false alarms,'' said David Wong, chief technical officer at the company, which is based in Shenzhen, near Hong Kong.

    ''It can be operated under the most severe conditions in adverse environments.''

    The security devices were originally developed by All Set Marine Security, based in Bromma, Sweden, near Stockholm.

    All Set is licensing the technology to G.E.

    In the future, two versions of the monitoring device will be available, ones built into the doors of new containers and ones that can be retrofitted on an interior door post of old containers, said Walt Dixon, project leader for port and cargo security at the General Electric Global Research Center in Niskayuna, N.Y.

    Stephen E. Flynn, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and an expert on cargo security, said devices like G.E.'s were essential if containers were to be made smarter.

    Dr. Flynn is a retired commander in the United States Coast Guard.

    There are millions of containers in circulation, he said, any one of which could be used by terrorists as a Trojan horse.

    ''But if I knew a particular container had been tampered with,'' he said, ''I could intercept it without causing problems for everyone else.''

    A suspect container could be identified and isolated for inspection without interrupting regular cargo operations.

    Smart containers would also be important in the aftermath of an attack, he said, for forensic investigation.

    ''If we had an Al Qaeda-style attack at two ports at the same time,'' he said, ''it would create uncertainty about all containers,'' possibly bringing trade to a standstill.

    ''But if you could go back into the data and find where the boxes came from, you could narrow down the set of problems,'' he said, without having to close down the whole system.

    General Electric tested the system in the laboratory and at sea.

    ''The freight can be subject to enormous forces,'' Mr. Dixon said, for example, if the containers are stacked up to eight high on deck and rolling through 40-foot seas.

    The group tried a number of approaches to sensing whether the container doors were open at sea, including a pressure sensor.

    But in one storm the container flexed so much that the pressure between the door and the door frame went to zero.

    ''So we decided pressure was not a good sensor,'' he said.

    ''The zero reading would give us a false alarm in heavy seas.''

    Instead, the device senses magnetic flux density between the frame and the door of the container, said Russell Mortenson, chairman of All Set Marine Security.

    ''When the door moves, the magnetic field changes,'' he said, ''and we can determine the distance between the door and the door frame quite accurately.''

    The device is built to last for the life of the container, typically 10 years, he said.

    To interrogate the sensor, the G.E. group built wireless readers with a 100-foot range at dockside and prototypes of hand-held readers with a 30-foot range.

    ''In the future,'' Mr. Petrizzi said, ''we'd like a hand-held device the size of a flashlight to allow people to arm and read the status of the device.''

    Unisys paid for some of the tests for the new system.

    ''It was an opportunity to look at the competing types of technology,'' said Greg J. Baroni, who is president of the global public sector of Unisys.

    ''This one is relatively inexpensive compared to the alternatives,'' he said.

    One alternative is Global Positioning System-based systems with satellite communication to keep track of goods on route.

    David Schrier, lead author of a report on container security by ABI Research of Oyster Bay, N.Y., said there would eventually be government-mandated rules for smart containers.

    His company estimated that more than seven million containers enter the United States annually.

    ''Once that government mandate comes,'' he said, ''the market will lose its apprehension about the costs of smart containers'' and start providing minimum protection.

    ''That may well be simple devices to tell if the container has been opened or not.''

    Dr. Flynn said money spent on ensuring the integrity of cargo shipments was justified.

    ''The costs to improve the odds of preventing an attack, and, in the worst case, to prevent shutting the whole system down, are a good payment to make.''

January 28, 2005 at 10:01 AM | Permalink


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Maritime security is pretty complicated stuff, requiring a layered approach, as Dr. Flynn and others will tell you. So, if the container is your first line of defense, you have already lost the battle.

Posted by: Barry Parker | Feb 20, 2005 2:30:48 PM

Yes, that's all well and good except when the terrorist device was loaded originally in the container. I think if someone was of a mind to wreak havoc in our country, or any country, and used a shipping container to transport, whatever the device might be, a little security measure like this one would not have much impact on their plans. However, every little bit helps, I suppose.

Posted by: lowtechdude | Jan 28, 2005 2:39:23 PM

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