X-Ray Vision

Here’s what Cheryl Meyer wrote about RFID on CNET today.

“Ocean-going cargo is the critical link in the United States’ economic supply chain — as well as the most effective delivery vehicle for a terrorist-inspired weapon of mass destruction.”

That was her opening line, and here’s some more from her report:

“Alas, ocean-going cargo is also the least secure. Despite efforts by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency in the wake of Sept.11, 2001, to randomly check the manifests of containers overseas that are destined for U.S. ports, only about 6% of the containers entering American docks are actually X-rayed or physically inspected prior to their departure from foreign ports.

“Concern over the vulnerability of the nation’s ports to terrorist attack comes at a time when U.S. companies rely on international transportation for an increasing share of foreign manufactured goods and raw materials. The combined value of U.S. exports and imports totaled $ 2.23 trillion in 2004, according to the World Shipping Council, a Washington, D.C. trade group representing liner shipping companies serving international trade. Roughly 11 million ocean-going cargo shipping containers are expected to be offloaded at U.S. ports this year, a number that may reach 12 million containers next year, according to Council president Chris Koch.

“The answer to this very real threat is to use radio frequency identification devices, argues Gary Gilbert, senior vice president of Hutchison Port Holdings, the world’s largest container port operator and a unit of Hong Kong-based conglomerate Hutchison Whampoa. A host of RFID designers and manufacturers, many backed by venture capitalists keen to invest in one of the latest VC trends — homeland security — fervently agree with Gilbert.

“Lani Frits, chief operating officer of Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Savi Technology, a 16-year-old contractor to the U.S. Department of Defense, is one of those eager technology suppliers. In April, Fritts began supplying active RFID tags to Hong Kong-based Hutchison Port Holdings. Fritts boasts that his joint venture project with Hutchison will result in an active RFID-based information network that can track and manage container cargo to provide better visibility of goods traveling through the ocean-going supply chain and play a role in providing some level of intrusion detection as well.

“‘The value proposition is still very much inventory management, supply chain efficiency and adaptability,’ Fritts says. ‘But active RFID tags also happen to be tags that can supply some kind of security as well.’”

Not all national security experts agree, however. Roger Johnston, who runs the Vulnerability Assessment Team at Los Alamos National Laboratory in Los Alamos, Calif., says his team has evaluated RFID devices, among other proposed cargo security technologies, and says he questions the technology’s use in security applications.

Johnston says his team has been able to demonstrate that active RFID tags are easy to steal from one container without detection and then attach to another container, or counterfeit, or spoof. He notes that RFID manufacturers have made attempts to design security features into the active tags, but for the most part, those attempts have been ineffective. “It’s relatively easy to tamper with these devices,” he says. “The idea that you are going to buy one thing that is going to do everything is not plausible,” he concludes.

John Hill, a principal at Esync, a Toledo, Ohio, consultancy specializing in supply chain and logistics, was quoted as saying: “From the point of view of security, I can encrypt an RFID tag. I can ensure that the tag has not been tampered with. But the tag itself is not going to do a lot to prevent a guy from penetrating the container.” Active RFID tags could help contribute to cargo container security, he says, but only when used in tandem with other technology, such as X-ray detection portals and other types of sensors for chemical, biological or nuclear materials. Getting those technologies to act in harmony, however, is a massive integration challenge, he says.

Others inside and outside the national security arena share this skepticism:

• Randy Koch at Blue Bell, Pa.-based Unisys, notes that the technology part of the balance is still evolving.
• Joe Leone, chief technical officer of RFID Global Solutions of Rogers Ark., says “It’s going to take people with creative minds to understand how they are going to tie all of these sensor devices and RFID tags together with software and communication systems.”
• But that’s a complex task, says Craig K. Harmon, the CEO of consultancy QED Systems of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He says that in the near future there will be three possible active RFID tags associated with freight containers. All are still being worked on; none have yet been issued.
• Avante International Technology of Princeton, N.J., takes a different approach. The company claims that, rather than monitor the lock and seal on containers, its system monitors intrusion from inside the container. The company has developed a system in which several active RFID “Zoner” tags are placed randomly inside a shipping container. A network of RF readers outside the container monitors signal changes would report intrusions or tampering while in transit to customs officials or port authorities.
• David Schrier, an analyst with ABI Research of Oyster Bay, N.Y., who recently authored a report on cargo security, does not expect to see wide implementation of RFID on shipping containers without a push from the U.S. government to establish a U.S. standard and then an international standard.
• Chris Koch of the World Shipping Council expects U.S. Customs will require mechanical barrier seals on containers. Mandating mechanical seals suggests that they will have to be inspected — a job that will require tremendous manpower.

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