AMU Homeland Security Intelligence North America

Are US Ports Too Reliant on Technology?

By Leischen Stelter, In Public Safety
Guest Contributor

U.S. ports handle more than 2 billion tons of domestic, import and export cargo annually, according to the American Association of Port Authorities (AAPA). To do that work effectively, ports rely on a variety of technology to track and trace ships and cargo including GIS, GPS, RFID and bar codes.

While technology systems can improve the ability of ports to manage and monitor what enters and leaves, in reality ports “simply cannot screen or monitor everything coming in and out of a port,” said Ernie Hughes, who teaches the Port and Terminal Operations course in the Transportation and Logistics Management master’s program at American Military University (AMU).

Related article: Securing the Nation’s Ports Against Cyberterrorism

Some technology systems are mandated by law. The Security and Accountability for Every (SAFE) Port Act of 2007 requires that 100 percent of U.S.-bound shipping containers and cargo be scanned for nuclear threats. However, due to major logistical challenges in implementing such nuclear-detection technology, this law has not become a reality.US ports security technology

As a matter of fact, DHS administrators have waived the law for four consecutive years. In 2012, then-secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano waived the requirement for two years and in 2014 current DHS secretary Jeh Johnson did the same, pushing back security screening requirements until 2016, according an article in National Defense Magazine.

While there has been a big push for ports to continue integrating sophisticated technology, impracticalities lie in using such systems. Carmen Mousel, who spent nearly 30 years working in logistics in the U.S. Army and currently teaches a port security course at AMU, said that ports cannot rely solely on technology for protection and monitoring and must continue to enhance personnel training.

The Need for Backup Systems and Trained Personnel

During the Iraq War, Mousel was involved in shipping military equipment and supplies overseas. The military used RFID tags to track shipments, but problems quickly arose regarding the placement of tags within cargo containers. “If we put them too far into a container the scanning device often couldn’t read them,” she said. “Other times the RFID tags weren’t secured properly and would fall off during transit and also wouldn’t be recorded properly.”

When such a system failed, there often were not reliable backup systems in place. “Technology is wonderful when it works, but what happens when it doesn’t work or it’s compromised?” she asked. Even when alternative systems are in place, Mousel found the majority of personnel were not trained on what to do without the tracking technology. “Thankfully, many of the older logistical personnel started their careers using pencil and paper and knew how to track cargo without technology,” she said.

Panama Canal Expansion Brings Heightened Pressure

The reliance on technology for port operations is only expected to increase as U.S. ports race to prepare for the anticipated rise in cargo due to the Panama Canal expansion. This expansion is expected to double the capacity of the Panama Canal by 2016, allowing more and larger ships to pass through.

As U.S. ports scramble to make their facilities capable of handling greater amounts of shipping traffic, they will also continue integrating new security and monitoring technologies. This integration of new technology with existing systems means that port operators must harden their networks against cyberattacks. Even when money is invested in protecting these systems, it can take a long time for such changes to be developed and implemented, adding to the challenge of keeping pace with ever-evolving cyber threats.

As the U.S. Coast Guard continues focusing on hardening ports against cyberattacks those in the private sector and academic realm are also working to determine how to protect the nation’s ports against cyberattacks. One such event will take place March 2-3 during the Maritime Cyber Security Learning Seminar and Symposium at CCICADA at Rutgers University to discuss cybersecurity risks, threats and counter measures.

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