RANDOLPH, MASS. — As cargo ports go, the Port of Boston isn't large. But its 100-plus acres of containers plucked from ships and stacked like giant Lego blocks illustrate a problem that keeps security experts awake at night.
In any one of those 40-foot-long boxes, a terrorist or his bomb could be hiding - a veritable needle in a metal haystack. The current insecurity of shipping containers was highlighted anew by last month's terror alert and last week's news reports of authorities' fears of a radiological "dirty bomb" attack.
And the consequences could be enormous. By some estimates, detonation of a dirty bomb hidden in a single container could close every US seaport for longer than a week and throw the nation into recession while authorities delayed shipments and searched for more such threats.
Yet where there's fear, there's also hope. In this case, it's a technology that turns cargo boxes into "smart" containers that can detect and report break-ins. Smart containers won't come cheap. But the real challenge facing the government today, observers say, is to figure out more quickly what technologies will work, set standards, and to get these systems deployed - before terrorists act.
"For would-be terrorists, the global intermodal container system ... satisfies the age-old criteria of opportunity and motive," Stephen Flynn, director of the Council on Foreign Relations task force on homeland security, told a Senate committee in March. He warned of an "almost complete absence of any security oversight in the loading and transporting of a box from its point of origin to its final destination."
The US is awash in intermodal containers: Some 16 million arrive each year by ship or by trailer from Canada or Mexico. They're vital for bringing goods from abroad. But their ubiquity and relative anonymity make them tempting channels for terrorists.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, federal agencies from the US Customs and Border Protection to the Coast Guard have been trying to develop ways to sniff out the threat. Even with beefed-up inspections, new X-ray equipment, and computer analysis of shipping documents, however, only about 4 percent of containers are physically inspected annually, experts say.
Indeed, smart-containers are quickly becoming the security industry's holy grail, though nobody is yet sure which technology is best.
This month the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection is expected to announce a new test of smart containers. It will feature as many as 400 containers fitted with tracking and detection devices making their way through major US ports, according to those connected with the project.
That's good - but still agonizingly slow deployment for something the nation desperately needs, several experts say.
Many believe that a dirty-bomb attack - among authorities' greatest fears - would be easy to accomplish by shipping container.
In October, Robert Bonner, commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, recounted a little-publicized port-security war game in 2002 that envisioned a terrorist attack with dirty bombs sent in shipping containers. One hypothetical bomb was detected. The other blew up in Chicago and closed every US seaport for more than a week, caused the Dow stock index to drop 500 points, and caused $58 billion in damage.
But tucked under the arm of Robert McGowan, president of NaviTag Technologies, is something that could help. It's an electronic prototype no bigger than a box of chocolates. In a few seconds his tracking unit can transform an inert, or "dumb," shipping container like the one he's standing beside into a smart container. It can sense if the container is broken into and instantly report to headquarters. NaviTag recently won a government grant to produce its technology.
Under the watchful gaze of security cameras at one of the Port of Boston's branch facilities here in Randolph, Mass., Mr. McGowan flips up a latch on his little box and snugly places it onto a container door hinge. Then he clicks the latch down, pops a button, and presses a keypad. The unit is activated.
At that moment, the unit beams an encrypted radio signal to a satellite and onto a website that tracks the movement of the container using a global positioning system. Now, if the container is opened, a light sensor connected by cable will notify the battery-powered computer on the door, which, in turn, notifies authorities with its coordinates by latitude and longitude.
The big selling point for McGowan's system is that it detects and calls for help right away, no matter where it is. The downside is its $395 price tag, which works out to about $40 per trip over several years, he notes. That sounds expensive to some - but not as expensive as a stolen container load of razor blades or stereo speakers. Shave-meister Gillette as well as stereo manufacturer Bose are both interested.
Another promising and potentially less costly tracking technology already in use by the US military is radio frequency identification, or RFID. A container's identity and status are broadcast from a tiny unit on the container door to a nearby reader at a port gate or destination. The downside: Such systems cannot report an intrusion instantly - only later, when they are passing an electronic reader.
"It's almost like the Internet," says Lani Fritts, vice president of business development for Savi Technology, a Sunnyvale, Calif., firm that developed an RFID system the military uses to tell whether a container has meals-ready-to-eat or guns and ammo inside. "The system is starting to show promise. The military paid to develop it, but with more use and function I see this evolving worldwide."
Both RFID and satellite systems can plug in an array of other advanced sensors that detect humidity, temperature, even radiation or explosives inside the container. So even if a terrorist or thief leaves the container door alone, cutting through the side of the box instead, an intrusion would still be detected.
Not everyone is convinced. The World Shipping Council, a trade group representing major shipping lines, issued a white paper casting doubt on whether so-called e-seal technologies are ready for prime time. "It would be a serious security error simply to assume that technology can be applied to shipping containers and 'solve' the problem of container security," the report concluded.
Indeed, even with high-tech alarm systems, there's no security if terrorists are the ones "stuffing the box," says Michael Wolfe, a principal with North River Consulting Group, a supply-chain security and productivity firm in Marshfield, Mass.
The federal government has made strides with its Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism program. Customs authorities now analyze electronic manifests and require 24-hour advance notice of shipments.
Yet such organizational progress does not solve the problem of containers getting hijacked or broken into in transit. Seals can be circumvented or faked. Container doors can even be removed entirely, leaving today's plastic or lead seals intact. Only a smart container could plug that gap for sure.
"The technology may not work, but given the stakes, for gosh sakes let's try it [and] find out," Mr. Flynn says in an interview. "There's no way this is moving nearly as fast as it should be and with the sense of urgency it should have - not for a nation that's at war."