More security, less cost

With billions of dollars of international cargo moving through docks and airport terminals each year, IPICO Inc, a radio frequency identification (RFID) and supply-chain systems supplier; the E J Brooks Co; and Tenacent have developed a passive RFID-enabled container seal. The seal is designed to help cost-effectively speed entry and shipment of goods within, as well as across, borders, and to enhance security in ports around the world.

The BIT intermodal electronic container seal, a multilayered system to track and verify a container's integrity, was concurrently launched and displayed at the Intermodal Africa 2007 Conference and Exhibition in Durban, South Africa's main port for the export of containerized cargo, as well as the RFID World 2007 conference in Dallas TX.

IPICO developed the Brooks-IPICO-Tenacent (BIT) seal through technical collaboration with E J Brooks, a supplier of mechanical ISO 17712-compliant security seals; and Tenacent, the holder of an international patent for RFID-enabled tamper-evident seals. The BIT seal uses IPICO's proprietary IP-XTM UHF RFID technology to verify the integrity of a shipping container in the event of possible tampering. It automates collection of information on the security status of shipping containers at cross-border points of control to provide an audit trail of events from initial sealing to final destination.

Post 9/11, various international initiatives were launched to work toward secure global commerce, including the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism (C-TPAT), the Container Security Initiative (CSI), and the Secure Trade-lanes Initiative. Furthermore, the United States Department of Homeland Security and the European Union mandated detailed security protocols that apply to the approximately 230 million containers that land in global ports each year.

Military security

The fiercely competitive nature of the global shipping industry makes it economically impossible to commercially deploy the same technology standards adopted by the US Department of Defense and similar groups. While the military is prepared to pay more than $50 per container, the cost per container cycle in the commercial shipping industry should not exceed a few dollars.

IPICO and its partners overcame this challenge by developing the multi-layered BIT security seal to both fit the budgets of commercial players and comply with relevant international security standards.

The RFID tag that gives the seal its intelligence is currently based on the IP-X air interface protocol. Electronic Product Code Gen 2 compliant devices will be tested during third quarter 2007, and are expected to become available for commercial applications during Q4 2007. For its intrinsic strength, the BIT seal uses an ISO 17712-compliant mechanical bolt and locking insert supplied by E J Brooks. The BIT seal will be the first passive RFID transponder device to support both EPC Gen 2 and IP-X protocols on a single tag system, providing interoperability across multiple regulatory domains. The IP-X protocol also can read tags at very high speeds and supports the operation of large numbers of UHF RFID readers in the same frequency band, which is essential for nations with limited spectrum availability.

Competitive differences

The BIT seal offers the competitive advantage of various multi-layered security features built into a cost-effective design:

  • Factory-programmed tag ID provides each BIT seal with a distinct and unchangeable birth certificate, guaranteeing the integrity of a system based on this product.

  • Built-in tamper evidence to ensure that any compromises to the mechanical integrity of the seal are immediately detected at the closest point of monitoring or control.

  • Up to 1-kbit user-definable memory in the BIT seal tag supports storage of digital signatures on the seal and links it with a public key infrastructure-based trust network for offline verification of the authenticity of seals. This is essential in developing nations with limited communication infrastructure and an imperative for this concept to be globally acceptable.

The BIT seal is also designed to seamlessly fit the shipping industry's typical operational cycles. Manual completion of paper documentation can be replaced with electronic scanning of the seal and container IDs, using a handheld RFID scanner. If a high level of security is required, a digital signature can be written onto the tag, using the private encryption key of the shipper. Information representing the sealing event will be automatically dispatched to a back-end system, and if necessary, to a trust center.

Authorization of dispatching a sealed container can be linked to the right combination seal, container, truck and driver IDs. At an inspection point, typically Customs and Border Control at a large port, the seal status will be verified automatically using overhead readers at the entrance. Authorization to pass through or unload can again be linked to the expected combination of seal, container, truck, and driver IDs. A customs inspector can use a scanner loaded with a set of matching public encryption keys to verify the authenticity of seals and pick out seals that were replaced or not properly signed. Should it be necessary to open and inspect a container, the relevant customs authority can use an authorized seal to replace the initial seal, and write its own digital signature onto the new one. These procedures neatly fit into the Green Lane/Red Lane concept envisaged by US Customs to combine high levels of security with efficient cross-border operations.

Proof of concept

To date, pre-production versions of the BIT seal have been successfully tested and demonstrated to customs authorities and commercial players in China, Pakistan, South Africa, Latin America, France, and the United States. It is undergoing pilot trials in several of these countries.

“In testing, end-users have commented on the BIT seal's ease of use, versatility when being read in different scenarios, and low cost compared to alternative solutions for fostering secure global commerce,” says Gordon Westwater, president of IPICO.

“The BIT seal has the potential to establish a worldwide standard for secure electronic container seals,” said Westwater. “This product will enable global rollout of the container security technology envisaged post 9/11. It satisfies the requirements of customs and port authorities and fits the budgets of commercial players that will eventually foot the bill.”

E J Brooks views this product release as a key step towards the convergence of security and logistics visibility systems.

“As logistics and security needs continue to merge, cross-border transportation and RFID security seals will be addressed early in worldwide logistics plans, as the industry shifts inexorably forward in its use of RFID for container security and tracking,” said Andrew McNeice, vice-president-international sales for E J Brooks.

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