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- August 4, 2005 -


The Future of Cargo Security – Port of Hong Kong Implements New Screening Technology


SCDigest editorial staff

According to an article last week in the Wall Street Journal, the port of Hong Kong has implemented new screening technology that radically improves the level of security for container movements.

Ports and containers have long been a worry spot for security and anti-terrorism professionals. To date, security has mostly involved human intelligence and inspection of shipping manifests looking for suspicious cargo – both of which have very limited effectiveness. Most estimates say less than 6% of the seven million containers bound for the U.S. are deemed “high risk” by officials and pulled out for detailed inspection. The reality is that the chances of dangerous cargo – from weapons to a “dirty bomb” – getting through are probably quite high.

For the past year, the Hong Kong Terminal Operators Association, which includes both public and private entities, has used high tech screening machines made by Science Application International of San Diego to inspect every container.

“Trucks haul each container passing though the port through two of the giant scanners,” the WSJ wrote. “One checks for nuclear radiation, while the other uses gamma rays to seek out any dense, suspicious object made of steel or lead inside the container that could shield a bomb from the nuclear detector.”

Not only are the images from the scan displayed on large flat panel screens for security personnel to examine, the images are recorded along with the container ID and other information. That data can then be passed along to other ports or security officials for any suspicious cargo, or to help identify the bad guys if a security problem does occur later.

In addition to stopping dangerous cargo before it enters the supply chain, the technology has the potential to minimize the impact to the world economy if a problem does occur. Just as companies with poor tracking systems must recall all products if a problem is found in just a small batch, a terrorism issue could cause virtually all international shipping to stop. Using this technology, containers from a specific location or shipper, or with a specific scan profile, could be quarantined, allowing other containers to keep moving.

Estimated costs for the new system are $6.50 per container, if ultimately passed on to shippers.

Surprisingly, interest from U.S. Homeland Security in this type of technology has been limited. In fact, the U.S. government issued a statement only after receiving a July 21 letter from Hong Kong officials requesting support for the project. The letter suggested the project could be shut down, after an investment of more than $7 million, if the U.S. did not offer public support. In a response, Homeland Security said this type of screening technology holds the promise to “play a formidable role in blunting the terrorist threat,” but, according to the WSJ, did not indicate whether it would be consider for U.S. ports.

Automated scanners and held-held radiation scanners are used at many U.S ports, but only on the small percentage of cargo deemed suspicious. Apparently, the cost-benefit of a 100% scanning systems is not yet clear.

Some experts suggest the “single layer” security systems currently employed by the U.S. are not enough, and must be augmented with systems such as that in Hong Kong globally to create multiple levels of checks.

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Do you expect 100% screening technology like that in use in Hong Kong will be employed globally? Do you think U.S. Homeland Security is right or wrong to be resistant to this type of investment at foreign and U.S. ports? Let us know your thoughts.
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