Containerized Cargo Security — A Case for “Joined-up” Government

(Continued from last week)

Technical Challenges in Container Security

One of the main challenges to using customs authorities in the  cargo security role is their operational culture. Customs have traditionally been more focused on what is coming into the country rather than what is going out. Whereas this works well for revenue protection and detection of contraband, if maritime security measures are to be effective, they must be implemented prior to departure rather than at the point of arrival. Put simply, if a ship carrying a containerized dirty bomb is not subject to security control until it reaches the port of destination, it may well be too late. Similarly, many traditional maritime control procedures required under SOLAS, for example port State control for safety purposes, are also concentrated on the point of arrival. Some international programmes, for example the United States’ Container Security
Initiative (CSI) (and to a certain extent the overseas end of the Customs – Trade Partnership Against Terrorism (C-TPAT)) have sought to address this issue by transferring the onus to security checks to the point of departure. This, issues of extra-territoriality and sovereignty 1 Framework of standards to secure and facilitate global trade paragraph not withstanding, is a step in the right direction and echoes the aviation model of “host State responsibility”.
Any cargo security system must involve a considerable degree of liaison between the security practitioners and customs authorities, at least at the policy and legal levels. In many States international cargo travels under customs bond. Many storage and loading areas in ports and port facilities are customs controlled areas. What therefore are the legal implications for a port facility or ship security officer who wishes to check the contents of a container?
Even once the issue of legal right of access has been settled and procedures have been agreed, there is also the whole issue of facilitation and co-ordination of inspection between the various control authorities. Opening a container for inspection by customs, re-sealing it, opening it for inspection by port health authorities, re-sealing it, opening it for inspection by security, resealing it and so on, would be extremely inefficient and time consuming and therefore delaying. Such practices would also leave little chance of maintaining a credible audit trail for security purposes and would also considerably increase the chances of the ill-disposed (be they corrupt officials or otherwise) adding to or depleting, the contents of the container.
The key question is which containers need to be checked, and for what? One thing is certain, that you cannot screen them all effectively. From a counter-terrorist security perspective, clearly a box from a reputable, regular consignor to a reputable consignee, packed in secure conditions, demonstrably kept secure thereafter and with correct documentation, merits less attention than a one-off shipment from an unknown source. The need for an accurate assessment of the threat is clear. From a counter-terrorist perspective, “gathering and assessing information with respect to security threats” is a functional requirement of the ISPS Code.2 But what about the other concerns: drugs, dangerous goods, endangered species, agricultural health etc? How can meaningful threat assessments from a number of different sources and addressing all of these concerns be co-ordinate and acted upon, without bringing world maritime trade to shuddering
The whole concept of the application of security to containers at the port or port facility also warrants further investigation. The champions of high-technology solutions, usually the manufacturers, their agents and politicians seduced by persuasive glossy brochures and secure employment in their constituencies, would have us believe that container screening systems at ports and port facilities, coupled with the use smart seals, and transponders and detection systems in every container, will secure the maritime supply chain. However, the reality is that even if the
State of export could afford such equipment; the sheer volume of cargo being shipped limits its use to a small percentage of containers being shipped, with clearly defined parameters of which threat / irregularity to look for.

The regulated agent concept

Surely the logical solution to all of
 this is a partnership between Governments, all of the control authorities and security agencies with an interest in maritime cargo, the consignors, companies and cargo handling agents.
The logical place to apply the security is at the source, i.e. where the containers are stuffed. Once the contents have been established as being correct, non-threatening and legal, procedural security measures such as the use of seals, control of access, correct documentation and verifiable handling procedures can be applied. This then removes the need for further screening or searching of the containers at the port or port facility, except on a random sampling basis.
The Governmental buy-in to this would be in the form of national legislation empowering control authorities to delegate some of their functions to the consignors and/or cargo handling agents, through the application of agreed cargo security plans. This would have to be matched with appropriate powers for the control authorities to oversee compliance with the agreed plans by the “regulated agents”.
The benefit to the industry of such an approach could be that regulated agents would be able to “fast track” their containers through export controls. The threat of losing regulated agent status, thus losing economic benefits of the fast track facility, should be enough incentive to maintain compliance by the shippers. The benefits to the control authorities would be a ready-made risk assessment process, thus allowing them to concentrate on the higher risk exporters who do not qualify for regulated agent status, coupled with an auditable trail for investigating irregularities.
The regulation process could vary in complexity according to the individual national need. For example, individual agents could be regulated in respect of security, customs and revenue (“approved economic operators” in WCO parlance), carriage of dangerous goods, licensable goods, etc, or any combination thereof.
As a further incentive for compliance, and using the WCO’s “customs-to-customs” model, importing States could also “fast track” clearance of consignments received from regulated agents, subject to the regulated having a clean record. Any irregularities found by control authorities in the importing State during the course of random inspection, could be referred back to the relevant control authorities in the originating State.


The implementation, by
 Governments, of a regulated agent system for maritime supply chain security, based upon the WCO Framework of Standards model, could have significant benefits for increasing safety and security while at the same time enhancing the facilitation of international trade. Procedural security measures, consistent with the approach of ISO, would enhance the effectiveness of such an approach, while at the same time building confidence in the integrity of the system. For such a system to work will, it require the commitment of all Government agencies concerned with cross-border controls and security.