Expect electronic cargo seals

Robert Bonner, commissioner of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency, said he's cautiously optimistic that containers with tamper-evident electronic seals will be deployed some time this year.

He said agency officials have been pilot testing such technologies in the Free and Secure Trade (FAST) program, which facilitates movement of secure truck shipments from Mexico, and there appears to be good developments.

However, Bonner said the hold up is getting the technology to the point where it doesn't give a high level of false reads, which he said are "unacceptably high to us." He did not remember the figure, but said they are trying to get the number to be less than 1 percent.

To create a "smart box," an electronic device can be placed on a container that provides the time, date and a "seal number." It can record every time the device has been electronically queried and the container door opened and resealed. Inspectors can also use another device to wirelessly check whether that container was tampered with.

Eventually the technology could also indicate the container's location using a satellite tracking system, and a sensor within the container could monitor for radiological, biological or chemical weapons.

About 25,000 cargo containers arrive at U.S. seaports every day, or about 9 million annually. Government officials said they fear that terrorists could stow away in such cargos or nuclear devices and contraband could be smuggled in.

Bonner spoke with reporters after giving the keynote speech at the fifth annual CBP Trade Symposium. He said the agency has plans to enhance the voluntary Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism (C-TPAT) program, which has an enrollment of more than 7,400 companies. The program is designed to improve security without impeding the flow of goods.

Companies, which must provide a comprehensive plan to secure their supply chain, must be certified and validated to participate in the program. As a result, C-TPAT partners are six times less likely to be inspected, Bonner said. However, he qualified the statement by saying that the number of inspections have quadrupled overall since Sept. 11, 2001.

He said if security commitments are not met, companies can be decertified and about 30 have been since the program was instituted. He said agency officials are considering expanding the program to include foreign manufacturers.

C-TPAT is the largest public/private partnership that has emerged since the terrorist attacks, Bonner added.

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