Mixed Signals

From Monterrey, Mexico, comes this report authored by Sean Mattson of the Express-News. It’s another indictment against the blind faith our society has in anything “high tech”. Sean writes:

“Increasingly popular technology that tracks the contents of shipping containers could make some major U.S. sea and land ports vulnerable to terror attack, according to a private sector study. But a test of how easily the tracking system could be exploited as a bomb trigger was ignored by the Homeland Security Department, according to one of the firms involved in the study.

“A report offered to the government described a demonstration held in November in North Carolina that showed radio frequency identification (RFID) technology can be used to set off explosives hidden in shipping containers. The RFID systems increasingly are in use at U.S. ports of entry, touted as a tool for making a post-9-11 world safer. They’ve been adopted by the U.S. Defense Department and companies like Wal-Mart for tracking shipments from suppliers.

“Homeland Security and one of its agencies, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), didn’t respond to questions Friday regarding the RFID bomb trigger experiment.

“The test and homeland security’s silence regarding it have caught the attention of the U.S. Committee on Homeland Security.

“It does raise questions, it does raise concerns,’ Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, said of the report.

“Cuellar, who chairs the panel’s subcommittee on emergency communications, preparedness and response, said his office would contact DHS officials to provide us their side of the story.’

“Copies of the unclassified study were made available by the chairman of Powers International Inc., the North Carolina-based firm that conducted it, and by a staff member with the House committee. Homeland security officials have known of the RFID-as-bomb-trigger concern since at least October, according to copies of e-mails sent to the officials inviting them to the November testing.

“RFID has many applications, including retail anti-theft systems and on vehicles that have prepaid highway tolls or are precleared to use faster border-crossing lanes. Until Powers International, a firm specializing in trade security and logistics, began testing the theory a few months ago, it appears no one had examined the possibility that it could be used as an instrument of terrorism.

“When used on shipping containers, RFID is a two-part system: an electronic tag or seal on a container and a reader that sends a radio signal to prompt the tag to transmit its stored information.

“In the November test, a detonator tuned to pick up an RFID reader signal set off a small explosive charge placed in an empty container.

“The detonator was built by a college student using parts bought at Radio Shack for about $ 20, said Powers International chairman Jim Giermanski, an expert on international transportation, border logistics and Mexico trade.

“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 specialized terrorist tradecraft or operations in the United States,’ the report states.

“Giermanski, the author of the report, put it more bluntly in an interview: That that really means is that all a terrorist needs is an undergraduate and a case of beer.’

“The tests validity could not be independently verified. Two engineers who are not with Powers International vouched for it. The civil engineering department at the University of North Carolina was involved in scientific aspects of the test, according to the report, but its faculty could not be reached due to vacations.

“The Defense Department sent specialists to the November test who verified the activation of the RFID tag, the report states. Department officials didn’t respond to requests for confirmation Friday.

“Anne Marie Kappel, vice president of the Washington-based World Shipping Council, said she was aware of the test but had not seen the report. Powers International has been vocally opposed to RFID technology for some time,’ she noted.

“The American Association of Port Authorities doesn’t currently have a statement regarding the veracity of the report,’ said Aaron Ellis, the association’s communication director. I am interested to learn what (homeland security) and CBP have to say about it.’

“The premise for the RFID trigger experiment was straightforward, others said. Improvised explosive devices infamously used in roadside bombs in Iraq are often triggered by simple radio signals.

“I don’t have any question that it could be done,’ said John Hane, a specialist in communications and RFID issues with Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP, a Washington law firm. The technology isn’t being installed at ports as quickly as it is for other domestic uses, said Hane, due in part to the challenges of creating a global standard for it. Complicating a potential attack, RFID scanners at ports generally only scan containers from trusted shippers … ”

[Wait a minute. Could that be a misprint? Did Mr. Hane actually say that “ports generally only scan containers from trusted shippers”? And isn’t he inferring that the DHS is looking the other way and that folks we don’t trust are given a free hand to sneak in whatever they wish?

Isn’t this the sort of laxity or misbehavior that brought us 9-11? Or is it just plain stupidity on the part of U.S. officials?]