IT is key to terror defenses at U.S. seaports
By Dan Verton
WASHINGTON (IDG) -- An emergency regulation that went into effect after the September 11 terrorist attacks requiring all foreign cargo ships to provide 96-hour advance notice of their arrival in a U.S. seaport provides inadequate protection against terrorist attacks involving so-called "dirty" nuclear or chemical bombs, experts said this week.
As the U.S. Department of Transportation and Customs officials look at ways to better identify and screen cargo entering the U.S. via foreign ships, the U.S. Coast Guard and private companies that own and operate more than 1,000 port terminals are calling for greater use of IT-based systems. Such systems would be used to alert officials about cargo containers that have been tampered with before they enter U.S. territorial waters and enable tighter personnel screening and access control at all U.S. ports.
"If a container arrives in the U.S., it's probably too late," said Coast Guard Capt. Anthony Regalbuto, speaking at a forum on port and waterway security sponsored by the Transportation Research Board in Washington. "We need better electronic advance information."
Defense and intelligence officials are warning the Bush administration that the maritime transportation system in the U.S. offers terrorists an attractive target. More than 7,500 foreign vessels make more than 51,000 port calls in the U.S. every year. In addition, more than 6 million containers, including 156 million tons of hazardous material and 1 billion tons of petroleum products, enter U.S. ports each year. The cruise ship industry shuttles millions of people through many of these same ports.
However, authorities currently have very little advance information about the specific cargo being shipped in many of the containers. In fact, only 2 percent of all containers that are off-loaded at U.S. ports and transported to other parts of the country via air, road or rail are inspected prior to arrival, according to government estimates.
Bethann Rooney is the manager of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which, in addition to the seaport facilities of New York, owns and operates all of the bridges, tunnels and airports in the region and managed the World Trade Center before terrorist attacks brought its twin towers down.
The port of New York handles more than 5,000 ships and 3 million cargo containers every year, said Rooney. "It is impossible to inspect every container," she said, adding that current systems are incapable of detecting "dirty" bombs and other weapons of mass destruction.
Rooney said port operators need IT tools that would enable improved visibility of incoming cargo, accountability of cargo integrity and better control of access to restricted areas of port facilities.
"A chain of custody must be established so that the shipper and point of origin are held accountable," said Rooney. A "single integrated accessible database" with secure communications is critical to the ability to interdict cargo before it enters the U.S., she said.
Regalbuto said officials are currently studying the viability of using "electronic seals" for cargo containers that would immediately transmit an alert to U.S. officials via the Global Positioning System satellite system whenever a container was opened or tampered with during shipping. This would also facilitate development of a vessel monitoring and identification system capable of uncovering suspicious cargos up to 20 miles offshore.
At meetings with foreign officials set for next month, U.S. officials also plan to broach the subjects of better point-of-origin inspections and electronic access to shipping manifests, said Regalbuto.
John LaCapra, president of the Florida Ports Council, said that as of January 1, Florida requires fingerprinting of all seaport workers at its 11 major operating ports. In addition, Florida is studying ways to network those facilities and provide workers with a single smart card for access to all 11 facilities.
Martha Grabowski, chairwoman of a National Research Council committee, will meet with officials and ships' captains in New Orleans in March to discuss what types of IT systems would be most useful. Grabowski's committee will then make detailed recommendations to the White House's Office of Homeland Security by December.
"The technology means nothing if a crew captain refuses to use it because it doesn't meet his needs," said Grabowski.
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