A Double-edged Sword?

In Vol. XIV, Art. 6 we criticized once again the blind faith our society has in anything “high tech”. Sean Mattson of the Express-News had just revealed that, according to a private sector study, the RFID tracking system used to track the contents of shipping containers could make some major U.S. sea and land ports vulnerable to terror attack.

As Sean described it, in a test last November a detonator was used to pick up the RFID signal from within an empty container and a small explosive charge was set off. That test of how easily the tracking system could be exploited as a bomb trigger was ignored by the Homeland Security Department, however.

Janet Plume didn’t ignore it though. She’s the editor of Gulf Shipper, and maybe her coverage of this test, along with the touted advantages of RFID technology, will awaken some folks. In spite of its widespread use in sports, health care, food processing, passports, and retail anti-theft systems, Janet warned that “RFID technology could be a double-edged sword” and that its use in U.S. ports could increase a port’s vulnerability.

Powers International, a firm specializing in trade security and logistics, was the first to examine the possibility that RFID technology could be used as an instrument of terrorism. The chairman of the firm let it be known that the detonator used in the November test was built by a college student using parts purchased at Radio Shack “for about $ 20″. In an interview, the chairman remarked that, “… all a terrorist needs is an undergraduate and a case of beer”.

It is widely known that Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) are often triggered by simple radio signals, but Defense Department, Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection officials have, nevertheless, refused to make any pronouncements on the issue of RFID shortcomings.

This official silence about the November test has caught the attention of the U.S. Committee on Homeland Security, and Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, the chairman of the panel’s subcommittee on emergency communications, preparedness and response, has indicated that his office intends to get a response from those officials.

Rep. Cuellar may have to wait a while. There’s a lot at stake for the more than 33,000 security firms that have been feeding at the trough since 9-11. Mr. Mattson’s story included the comment (or observation) that, “Because an explosive device can be easily wired to detonate with the proper RFID signal … all our nation’s ports that employ the approved RFID frequency for shipping containers become more vulnerable to terrorist attack”, thus reducing the need for “surreptitious port penetrations, elaborate electronics, intricate timing, or other specialist terrorist tradecraft or operations in the United States”.

[Remember the roaring applause the DHS secretary got a couple of years ago from those 400 security industry execs he was addressing? There’s a deafening silence now, no doubt.]