Select your localized edition:

Close ×

More Ways to Connect

Discover one of our 28 local entrepreneurial communities »

Be the first to know as we launch in new countries and markets around the globe.

Interested in bringing MIT Technology Review to your local market?

MIT Technology ReviewMIT Technology Review - logo


Unsupported browser: Your browser does not meet modern web standards. See how it scores »

{ action.text }

TR: Are there technologies out there that could improve security?

Flynn: The good news is that there are, and they’re off the shelf, or near off the shelf. One key thing is the need to track the containers that move through the system. The technology for this is a combination of Global Positioning System and radio frequency identification [RFID] technologies. We don’t need to have real-time data about where every box is. We need to capture a record of where the boxes have been, and then at key points we interrogate the box to find out, “Where have you been, what have you been up to?” That can get downloaded through RFID. Then that information gets relayed to somebody who decides, “Oh, there’s information here that arouses my concern. Before this box is allowed into this loading port, I want it set aside so we can check on it. All the other boxes can keep going.” But there may be some places where, because there’s particularly high risk of other things happening, such as cargo theft, you want real-time GPS tracking.

TR: What about checking to make sure the boxes haven’t been tampered with?

Flynn: The kinds of things we’re looking at are sensors built into the box that can pick up things like light, or change in barometric pressure, or change in temperature, which would only come from somebody breaching the wall of the container or opening the door. And then there are other sensors out there for dealing with very important issues like radiation. All these sensors are important, because you can literally punch your way through the boxes. It takes next to nothing to breach a container.

TR: How do you integrate the tracking and sensor technologies?

Flynn: When the sensor goes off, the location of the box should be logged, and then I want that information stored until the box gets to a point where I can act on it, like a loading port. There, it goes through an RFID interrogator that says, “A box is coming in, here’s the box’s data, and whoops, the sensor went off.” We can find out just where that was. And then the terminal operator can say, “I don’t want that box in here. Let’s shift it off over to this-hopefully safer-area here, and then we’ll go through and do an inspection.”

TR: How much will all this technology cost?

Flynn: Equipment that monitors the position and integrity of the cargo would likely cost from $100 to $200 per box. Built-in sensors that could detect chemical and radiological materials would add another $50. Affordable and dependable sensors for biological agents are probably still a couple of years away but will come in about that price as well. A container has a typical life span of 10 years and is used up to five times per year, so even if the final installation and maintenance price tag came in at $500, and the sensors were replaced every five years, the cost of the “smart box” technologies could be as low as $10 to $20 per use. To put that figure into context, transpacific freight rates have fluctuated by more than $1,000 per container over the past 18 months with no measurable impact on world trade.

TR: Couldn’t the bad guys find a way around these technologies?

Flynn: The bad guys who are sophisticated will compromise your system-block your sensor, jam the signal, they’ll do all those things. But security works when you build layers. Each layer itself doesn’t have to be perfect. But collectively they create a pretty powerful deterrent. And it’ll get you to the point where these guys say, “This is not a system that I want to mess with,” versus the one we have right now, which is practically an open invitation for terrorists to do their worst.

0 comments about this story. Start the discussion »

Tagged: Computing

Reprints and Permissions | Send feedback to the editor

From the Archives


Introducing MIT Technology Review Insider.

Already a Magazine subscriber?

You're automatically an Insider. It's easy to activate or upgrade your account.

Activate Your Account

Become an Insider

It's the new way to subscribe. Get even more of the tech news, research, and discoveries you crave.

Sign Up

Learn More

Find out why MIT Technology Review Insider is for you and explore your options.

Show Me