Sensors Mag

Ports and the Storm

March 7, 2006 By: Stephanie vL Henkel, Sensors

I don't think the current flapdoodle over port security has all that much to do with Dubai. Or the United Arab Emirates. Or the Middle East in general. What I do think is that the general public was dumbfounded to find out that our ports have been managed for years by a foreign nation. Anyforeign nation. Not by us. And if this revelation doesn't give a major boost to sensor-based cargo security technology I don't know what will.

Sure, white-collar employees at Charleston, New York, Newark, Long Beach—go ahead, name some others—were quite aware that their boss was the quaintly named Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Co. and that it's based in London. I doubt the stevedores gave much thought to who signed their paychecks.

(Still, to those who say England, Dubai—what's the difference? I would probably respond that the U.S. is not fighting a war in Scotland. Yet.)

Scary Details

A recent 60 Minutes featured an interview with Stephen Flynn, formerly a Coast Guard commander and now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He thinks our ports are extremely vulnerable to hazardous imports and offered some scary numbers to support his contention.

Those 40-foot-long shipping containers are the weak link in the existing security chain, Flynn said, because to even try for 100% inspection would paralyze commerce. Instead, closer to 1% of the arriving containers are opened for examination. Although the U.S. Customs and Border protection upholds the 100% figure, in reality this means that all cargo manifests are checked and the shipments's countries of origin are given a closer look for known or suspected ties to terrorism.

Special Attention

According to Kevin McCabe, chief customs inspector at the combined ports of New York and Newark, on an average day 6%–7% of arriving containers are pulled for special treatment. This consists of making sure their seals are intact, and then running them through Vacis, a monster X-ray machine that can reveal anomalies in the cargo. (One anomaly turned out to be a difference in density between fruit-filled cookies and the chocolate wafers around them.)

Can current inspection technology discover nuclear devices? Perhaps. The inspectors have begun to use some new radioactivity detectors, but they'd have to be pointed at the guilty containers. But what about anthrax in a bulk shipment of arrowroot? Or sarin in a vat of vanillin?

But We Have It!

The technology exists to nose out nearly everything we don't want coming ashore. You've read about some if it right here in Sensors. (Here are links to four articles, just to get you started: Mesh Radio Network Performance in Cargo Containers; Acoustic Inspection and Analysis of Liquids in Sealed Containers; Portable Chemical Profiling; and Customs Gets AID from Pacific Northwest.)
So why isn't it in full use? I wish I knew, but I will speculate that those who hold the national purse strings have generally found other ways to spend our money. Ah, the incantatory word, "Priorities."

Well, whether or not Dubai's DP World is really some sinister front for a terrorist organization—and there is absolutely no reason to suspect that it is—the double whammy of learning that we've outsourced even our ports, not only to foreign, but a Middle Eastern sort of foreign supervision, is unlikely to go away any time soon. (We'd be just as burned up to discover that all airport security personnel work for the Norwegians.)

So the national howling ought to prompt the powers that be (for which read, The Government) to buy and install much more of the intelligent inspection equipment that's already out there on the market. Moreover, serious research grant money had better be invested in countering whatever new and exotic ways some tiny minority of the world's inhabitants are busy thinking up to bring us down.

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