CBP and smart containers: What does It know?

In January 2009, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) will conduct a pilot program to test a type of container security device (CSD) used to make . The test will take place with containers crossing the border into the United States from Mexico. That sounds like a good thing. A deeper look will suggest something else.

It is truly incredible that as the U.S. government sees it, that is, as the and the (DOD) see it, seems to be focused on , probably the worst technology for that use. It also seems that, in spite of all the money available to these two giant agencies, and the research entities used by them or could used by them, they seem to have little appreciation for the value of not just smart container usage, but also CSD technology. I hope in this short treatment of two CSD technologies, that the reader will see the stark differences between RFID and Satellite Communications technology. I will take the essential and specific elements of each and make a comparison.


RFID is a radio frequency based technology. As such, it is regulated by the (FCC). The FCC has decided that for container security, certain frequencies must, not should, but must be used. These frequencies are published. Anyone who desires to transmit or receive these signals can do so by purchasing an off-the-shelf transmitter and receiver. Without getting into the difference between active and passive RFID, the essential issue is that its use requires the transmission and reception of a radio frequency (RF) signal. The FCC also specifies the strength or amplitude of that signal, and the duration of that signal. All of this information is publicly available.

1. RFID Benefits In general, RFID has been in use for a long time. Its hardware and its application in certain environments are hallmarks of efficiency and effectiveness in the control of handling and warehousing products, specifically in conditions and settings where antennas and transponders, and environmental conditions are controllable. Bar-coding, pallet control, and item-control such as that used by retailers in attaching RFID tags to garments, electronic equipment boxes, and other selected products are a few examples. In these settings, the RF frequencies are the same and are used in the same way a very good profitable application of RFID.

2. RFID Weaknesses While its benefits in controlled environments are obvious, its weaknesses in container security within a global supply chain are just as obvious. The very nature of a global supply chain brings lack of control, the antithetical condition of effective and efficient usage. Its application to international transportation across the U.S. land border with Canada and Mexico was tested by the government in the mid 1990s with the involvement the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) and U.S. Customs (now Customs and Border Protection, an agency of the Department of Homeland Security). The test was called the North American Trade Automation Prototype (NATAP) and it took place at six of our U.S. land ports. As a participant in the NATAP test along the southern border, this writer can state unequivocally that the test failed, both because of institutional and RFID-technology reasons.