Despite investing nearly $60 million in research to create better seals and doors for cargo containers in order to prevent tampering, the Department of Homeland Security has only made limited progress in developing the technology and has yet to come up with adequate performance standards for it, according to a new report.
For years, DHS and lawmakers have worried that the thousands of cargo containers that flow from across the world into the United States, mostly by ship, are vulnerable to terrorists and smugglers using them to transport weapons of mass destruction, guns, drugs and even stowaways. Along with its cargo scanning and screening programs, DHS has been working on another potential way to counter the threat: making sure officials know whenever a container has been opened and allowing for unbroken, global tracking.
According to a new study by the Government Accountability Office, since 2004 the department's Science and Technology Directorate has pursued initiatives including:
  • The Container Security Device (CSD), to detect the opening or removal of container doors. - The Marine Asset Tag Tracking System (MATTS), to track containers.
  • The Advanced Container Security Device (ACSD), intended to detect intrusion on all six sides of a container.
  • A lightweight container with a built-in sensor grid known as the Hybrid Composite Container. The latter two have yet to complete laboratory evaluations and aren't scheduled for completion until 2012 due to technological challenges, the report said.
In the earliest laboratory phases, researchers identified enough deficiencies in the ACSD that funding for the program was suspended. One prototype, from L-3, successfully detected container door intrusion but failed to identify pre-existing holes in the containers. Another, from SAIC, also fell short of requirements but showed enough promise that the Science directorate could resume funding, GAO said. The company producing the container for the hybrid program, Marine Secure Composites, encountered durability challenges significant enough to require contract re-negotiations. DHS expects the project to resume work this month, GAO said. The CSD initiative is expected to meet its 2011 completion deadline, while MATTS is slightly behind schedule. But both are moving toward tests in an operational environment, GAO found.
The Science directorate plans to test the performance of the CSDs -- small sensors mounted on containers' door frames and walls -- on a trip from Shanghai, China, to Savannah, Ga. But GAO found that the department's master plans for the operational tests don't reflect all of the real-world implementation scenarios foreseen by Customs and Border Protection and other agencies. "Our prior work has shown that when operational requirements are not established prior to acquisition, it can negatively affect program performance," the report said.
Before the Science directorate provides performance standards -- including system requirements and test plans -- to CBP and the Office of Policy Development, it should test the devices in all of the possible implementation situations DHS expects, the report said. Until it does so, the Science directorate cannot provide the agencies with reasonable assurances that the technology will work properly. Even if the directorate does determine that the technology is mature enough to issue performance standards, CBP and the Office of Policy Development would still have to obtain industry support for production, develop a concept for operation and deployment and certify the devices for use, GAO found.