What’s In That Container?

Container-ship

Ever since 9-11, there has been acute concern about preventing “the next” big attack on our nation.

 

Will it be a suitcase bomb, anthrax in the mail, an attack on our mass transit systems, or perhaps a nuclear device smuggled into one of our ports–all very frightening scenarios!

 

The last one though has been of particular fascination and concern given the amount of commerce that passes through our ports–more than 95% of our international trade–and hence the damage that could be done to our economy should these ports be hit as well as the challenges in being able adequately screen all the containers coming through–a massive undertaking.

 

Wired Magazine (November 2011) did a feature story on this topic in an article called “Mystery Box.”

 

The article highlights the unbelievable damage that could occur if a dirty bomb (“a radiological dispersion device”) were to get through in one of the millions of 20 foot long by 8 foot wide shipping containers out there–aside from the risk to lives, “it would result in a major national freak-out…cause billions and billions of dollars in economic damage…dirty bombs are weapons of mass disruption.”

 

While 99% of shipping containers are scanned when they arrive in the U.S., DHS is supposedly challenged in implementing a bill requiring scanning every container before they enter the U.S.–“some 66,000 [containers] a day.

 

Instead “100 percent screening” is being pursued where, shipping information is checked before arrival–including vessel, people, and cargo, origination, and destination–and when an anomaly or cause for concern is detected–if there is a U.S. Customs Officer at the origination port, they can check it there already.

 

However, there are still at least four major issues affecting our port security today:

 

1) Most containers are still checked only once they actually get onshore.
2) The scanners are too easily foiled–“most detectors are set to ignore low radiation levels. [And] basic shielding would be enough to mask all but the strongest sources.”
3) Thoroughly scanning every container is consideredtoo time-consuming using current processes and technology and therefore, would adversely affect our commerce and economy.
4) Around the world “Customs tends not focus on containers being transshipped [those moving from ship to ship]. Their attitude is ‘It’s not my container, it’s just passing through.'”

 

This is a perfect example of technology desperately needed to address a very serious issue.

 

Certainly, we cannot bring our economy to a standstilleither by unnecessarily checking every “widget” that comes over or by risking the catastrophic effects of a WMD attack.

 

So for now, we are in a catch-22, darned if we do check everything as well as if we don’t.

 

This is where continued research and development, technological innovation, and business process reengineering must be directed–to secure our country sooner than later.

 

The risks are being managed best we can for now, but we must overcome the current obstacles to screening bybreaking the paradigm that we are boxed into today.

 

(Source Photo: here)

>Balancing Freedom and Security

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There is a new vision for security technology that blends high-tech with behavioral psychology, so that we can seemingly read people’s minds as to their intentions to do harm or not.

There was a fascinating article (8 January 2010) by AP via Fox News called “Mind-Reading Systems Could Change Air Security.”

One Israeli-based company, WeCU (Read as we see you) Technologies “projects images onto airport screen, such as symbols associated with a certain terrorist group or some other image only a would be terrorist would recognize.”

Then hidden cameras and sensors monitoring the airport pickup on human reactions such as “darting eyes, increased heartbeats, nervous twitches, faster breathing,” or rising body temperature.

According to the article, a more subtle version of this technology called Future Attribute Screening Technology (FAST) is being tested by The Department of Homeland Security—either travelers can be passively scanned as they walk through security or when they are pulled aside for additional screening are subjected to “a battery of tests, including scans of facial movements and pupil dilation, for signs of deception. Small platforms similar to balancing boards…would help detect fidgeting.”

The new security technology combined with behavioral psychology aims to detect those who harbor ill will through the “display of involuntary physiological reactions that others—such as those stressed out for ordinary reasons, such as being late for a plane—don’t.”

While the technology married to psychology is potentially a potent mix for detecting terrorists or criminals, there are various concerns about the trend with this, such as:

1) Becoming Big Brother—As we tighten up the monitoring of people, are we becoming an Orwellian society, where surveillance is ubiquitious?

2) Targeting “Precrimes”—Are we moving toward a future like the movie Minority Report, where people are under fire just thinking about breaking the law?

3) Profiling—How do we protect against discriminatory profiling, but ensure reasonable scanning?

4) Hardships—Will additional security scanning, searches, and interrogations cause delays and inconvenience to travelers?

5) Privacy—At what point are we infringing on people’s privacy and being overly intrusive?

As a society, we are learning to balance the need for security with safeguarding our freedoms and fundamental rights. Certainly, we don’t want to trade our democratic ideals and the value we place on our core humanity for a totalitarianism state with rigid social controls. Yet, at the same time, we want to live in peace and security, and must commit to stopping those with bad intentions from doing us harm.

The duality of security and freedom that we value and desire for ourselves and our children will no doubt arouse continued angst as we must balance the two. However, with high-technology solutions supported by sound behavioral psychology and maybe most importantly, good common sense, we can continue to advance our ability to live in a free and secure world—where “we have our cake and eat it too.”

>What Hollywood Can Teach Us About Fighting Terrorism

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U.S. law enforcement officials have thwarted about two dozen known terrorist plots since 9/11 and there are probably lots more that haven’t made the papers. Some of them, like this month’s “Underwear Bomber” have nicknames, like the “Shoe Bomber” (2002), the “Lackawanna Six,” (same year), and the “Virginia Jihad” (2003). Others are known by geographical location, such as Fort Dix (2007) and the foiled plot against synagogues in the Bronx (2009). But one thing they all have in common is their determination to threaten and even destroy our freedom and way of life.

As a person who is deeply dedicated to America’s safety and security, both personally and professionally, I worry about the rise of terrorism that has sprung up in the past few decades. Terrorists are relentlessly determined to destroy our lives even if it means taking their own lives to do it. But what is even more frightening is that despite all the actions we have taken to fight terrorism, our culture remains deeply reactive. Can we really stay one step ahead and lucky forever?

The best example of our relative complacency in the face of a deadly threat is the policy of taking off our shoes for screening only after the case of the Shoe Bomber came to light. Now again, we waited for an Underwear Bomber before talking seriously and publicly about full body screening for all?

There is a saying that you can’t drive a car by looking in the rearview mirror, but unfortunately that seems to be the way our culture approaches the fight against terrorism. The focus should not be on stopping the last threat, but on anticipating and countering the future threat before it ever materializes.

To do this, we need to think like the bad guys do as well as conduct more exercises to expose our own security weaknesses (red teaming), rather than be surprised when the terrorists find our next Achilles heel.

In the particular case of the Underwear Bomber, it was particularly shocking that we knew this person was a threat. His own father warned us, yet we didn’t put him on the terrorist watch list or revoke his visa (as the British did). And just today I read that this individual told investigators there are literally hundreds more just like him, all waiting to strike.

Think about that for a second. There are seemingly endless terrorists out there, and they can have a 99% failure rate and still be “successful.” Yet U.S. and global law enforcement can’t fail at all—not even once—without dire and deadly consequences on a massive scale.

However, instead of gripping that unbelievable reality and treating it as the dire situation it is, there is actually talk about “rehabilitating” the terrorists. As if we have succeeded at rehabilitating “normal” criminals…now we are going to try and “deprogram” people who are religiously “inspired” to commit their diabolical deeds?

To adequately manage the new reality we face today, we must not only stay ahead of known threats, but also proactively envision new potential attack scenarios, prepare for them, and thwart them before they become potentially lethal.

A great place to start would be Hollywood; our entertainment industry has done a pretty good job of imaginatively exposing potential attack scenarios—in dozens of films from Air Force One to The Sum of All Fears, Executive Decision to The Peacemaker, and Arlington Road to The Siege, and many more.

There are also television shows like 24, with now seven seasons and counting, that keep Americans riveted to their seats week after week with terrorism plots that play out before our very eyes. We seem to generally view these as serious threats that are possible in our time.

I respect the President for openly acknowledging the “systematic failure,” but it is going to take all of us to commit and follow through with ongoing security measures. It is not a one month or one year event (or even an 8 year event post 9/11), but rather a complete new security mindset that stays with us always.

We can and should learn from the visionary talent in our vibrant entertainment industry and from wherever else they may reside, and adopt creative and proactive thinking about terrorism and make this a regular part of our security culture. I understand that there are many forces at play here, and that most of us are not privy to some of the more sophisticated ways that we fight terrorism every day. But what I am talking about is our collective, public culture, which still seems to shrug off the seriousness of threats against us. For example, just today, I saw a sign in an airport that directed wheelchairs through security screening. It seemed almost an invitation to sew explosives into a wheelchair (although I understand that these are actually screened).

I have the deepest respect for the men and women who serve to protect us every day. But as a culture, it is long past time to wake up. We don’t have the luxury of collective denial anymore. We must embrace security as a fact of life, fully and in an ongoing manner.

Further, as we approach 2010, let us resolve to learn from the most imaginative people in our society about how we may think out of the box when it comes to combating terrorism.

In the real world, we must act now to quickly deploy new, more advanced screening technologies to our airports, marine ports, and border crossings, and employ our most creative minds to “outwit, outplay, and outlast” the terrorists who plot against us—whether in their shoes, their underwear, or wherever else their evil schemes might lead them.