Shipping Containers – That Marvel of Modern Logistics, for Good and for Bad!

In our last issue we looked at mobile port security systems. In this issue, we will take a look at another related subject, that of intermodal security. And what better exemplifier of a truly intermodal system than shipping container traffic?

Over ninety percent of the worlds trade moves by sea, and, over seventy percent as containerized cargo.

That seventy percent arrives at a port by train or truck, is loaded onto a ship and carried on-board to its port of destination. It is then transferred to another train or truck and transported to a town near you. The system is a marvel of modern logistics and has transformed the way we live and do business. It underpins the ‘just in time’ industrial production system, the growing dominance of online commerce and more generally globalisation itself.
So, containerisation is the very essence of intermodalism.

But with all good things come their own set of problems.

One of the advantages of a container is that it is sealed and lockable. One of the disadvantages of container is that it is sealed and lockable.
Generally, containers are bolted shut and fitted with high-security hardened steel padlocks, which are both cut and drill resistant. This means that they are exceedingly difficult to open and tamper with without proper authorisation.

Once loaded and locked the container will not be opened again until it arrives at its final intended destination, not unless customs officials along its route or at the final destination decide to open and inspect it.
This system has drastically curtailed (though not completely eliminated) portside pilfering by dockers, which has been endemic since man first transported goods by sea and has cost untold billions.

But the inherent security of containers and the incredible worldwide logistical system that they underpin, means that bad actors have inevitably seen this as an opportunity. Containers provide a secure fast and efficient way to get illicit goods from one place to another.

The vast majority of containers, are of course, carrying legal goods, but inevitably some are being used to smuggle drugs, weapons and even people. A situation that poses a very real and serious threat to the national security of the transit or destination countries.

Customs officials, armed with a careful evaluation of each container’s documentation, may select specific containers for inspection, but physically inspecting containers is inevitably slow and expensive. And delays cost money and undermine the efficiency of the entire system.

According to the UNODC more than five hundred million containers move around the globe each year and less than two percent of these are inspected.
So, traffickers like good businesspeople anywhere will make allowances for loss or damage of goods in transit. And according to the US National Retail Federation, industry averages for loss or damage run at between eight and ten percent of all purchases.

It is therefore a sound business decision for drugs and weapons traffickers to choose the intermodal system. With inspections running at only two percent, and the majority of those containers physically inspected not actually resulting in seizures, projected losses for drugs and weapons can be expected run at well below retail industry standards!

The UNODC Container Control Programme (CCP) was launched in 2003 and was developed jointly by UNODC and the World Customs Organization (WCO) to assist Governments to create sustainable enforcement structures in selected seaports in order to minimise the risk of shipping containers being exploited for illicit drug trafficking, transnational organized crime and other forms of black-market activity.

There are three key elements to the programme.

The creation of inter-agency container profiling units called Joint Port Control Units (JPCUs) at selected container terminals in seaports as well as dry ports. The units are located in a secure environment, preferably inside the ports, and staffed by front line personnel from different relevant law enforcement agencies. The officials are trained, through the use of risk analysis and other proactive techniques that allow them to systematically target cargo manifestos and other relevant data to target high-risk containers in transit.

The training itinerary is broken down into various phases. The first phase consists of basic training which familiarizes trainees with the various international legal instruments and the principles concerning information sources, risk analysis and other profiling techniques, cargo inspection, information exchange mechanisms, port seizure investigations and trade facilitation. The use of the internet as an open information source is also addressed during training. Following this classroom training, trainees are then introduced to practical training in identifying and inspecting substantial risk containers all conducted under the supervision of experienced trainers.

This basic training is then used during the advanced training stage in which trainers conduct more specialized training, such as targeting of CBRNe material. The array of subjects targeted during these training sessions, take into consideration the specific needs, and identified problems of the relevant countries. UNODC and WCO work closely with relevant agencies to deliver the necessary training.

The third training phase consists of a Study Visit to a benchmarking port which provides the trainees with the unique opportunity to gain experience first-hand from experienced law enforcement officials and discover different working techniques.

The fourth phase encompasses regular mentorship by trainers. This mentorship is organized to warrant the sustainability of the program and to ensure that officials who are new to the programme are being adequately trained and possess the same level of skills as their colleagues.

The inter-agency container profiling units are equipped to exchange information with counterparts in other countries using a secure communication application developed by WCO called ContainerComm. This an internet based and multifunctional communication tool which facilitates the encrypted exchange of sensitive information between authorized users in participating countries, including alert notices of the shipment of possible high-risk containers. It also allows users to verify container numbers. ContainerComm is cost effective and requires no special installation. It is continually being enhanced and is available in English, French, Russian and Spanish.

The inter-agency container profiling units are also given access to a search and tracking system for containers. This system allows the users to search and track containers with specific destinations and also gives the user detailed information about the type of cargo, routing, freight payment methods and all information needed to profile and identify high-risk containers.

The CCP has produced significant results in seizures of illicit goods and merchandise since its inception. The Executive Director of UNODC, Mr. Yury Fedotov has stated that the CCP has had “spectacular results, intercepting maritime shipments of illicit drugs, endangered species, counterfeit goods and stolen cultural artefacts. The effects of this work speak for themselves and with the expansion of this programme into more and more countries it will help the authorities to further tackle criminal networks.”

Whilst finds based on good intelligence is the most effective way of countering the trafficking of drugs and weapons, technology plays and important part for most frontline customs and border operations.
Non-intrusive large-scale high energy x-ray scanners have proved to be an incredibly valuable tool and the take up of this technology has been widespread, with upwards of 80% of trading ports using them.
They rely on x-ray technology to detect anomalies of shape within vehicles and containers, such as weapons.

There are plenty of these market from companies like American Science and Engineering (AS & E), Astrophysics Inc. , Leidos Security Detection & Automation, Inc., Nuctech Company Limited , Rapiscan Systems and Smiths Detection.

These systems have proved successful, but they have their limits. The first problem, as it is so often, is the human factor. The systems are only as good as the people who use them. When operators spend long hours in front of a screen, looking for what is deliberately well hidden, in often complicated loads, will inevitably result in missed detections.

The answer to this problem has been the introduction of automated detection to these systems, utilising Artificial Intelligence (AI).

“When it comes to automated scanning and in particular automatic detection using High Energy X-Ray systems, there are two things that are crucial to success, Quality and Quantity. That is the quality of the data provided around the image and the quantity of the images captured with associated metadata. The more, good quality images you take, the better the data references and the more you increase the probability of detecting anomalies. And the more images and data sampled alongside identified anomalies the algorithm detects the better it gets at detecting anomalies. That’s the beauty of AI.” Kevin Davies (Global Director – Ports & Borders) of Smiths Detection told BSR.

Whilst high energy x-ray scanners are good at looking for objects, (especially objects like weapons which are made up of distinct shapes that are difficult to disguise), organic materials like drugs and explosives pose a whole new set of problems.

High energy x-rays systems do not offer colour discrimination yet, so organic materials like powders, resin or liquids cannot easily be identified. That being the case, the only option is to identify voids and spaces (structural anomalies) that should not be there, where illicit materials may be hidden.
There are technologies that will help identify these materials, but that’s a subject for the next issue.

What this does prove is currently, there is no ‘silver bullet’ technology when it comes to the fight against cross border crime and a layered approach is still the way to go!

by Tony Kingham, Editor, Border Security Report