A weekly series by UPI examining emerging wireless telecommunications technologies.
CHICAGO, Aug. 13 (UPI) -- An associate of Osama bin Laden crawls into a container -- along with some new luxury cars -- in a shipyard in Hamburg, Germany. The goal -- shipping himself to the United States and evading the Department of Homeland Security, with its high-tech officers on the ground at major airports, armed with databases of suspects' photos.
He is foiled, however, when a silent alarm is triggered, and an alert is sent to security over the airwaves, as he lifts the lid of the container in the warehouse. A wireless radio frequency identification or RFID security tag on the container sent the signal, silently, without alerting the intruder.
This scenario is one the government, major shippers and transportation companies are envisioning as possible for the near future.
"The security of American ports continues to be a critical issue for homeland security," Robert Jackson, an attorney with Reed Smith LLP, located in the firm's Washington, D.C., office, told United Press International.
RFID technology, long touted as in-store anti-theft devices for retailers, is evolving and now is "the answer for homeland defense at our ports," Ben Quinones, a partner in the technology law practice of Pillsbury Winthrop in California's Silicon Valley, told UPI.
The technology, developed by private sector research and development labs -- at companies like Avery Dennison, among others -- goes by several names, but one well-known product is called the "security strap," a spokesman for the company told UPI.
Once goods are sealed inside a box, a longshoreman or another worker affixes the security strap. That enables shippers to track the cargo containers through their entire overseas trip. Tampering with the seal brings a security check.
Companies like SAMSys are moving forward with second-generation RFID security technologies that may be even more effective. Sun Microsystems Inc. recently opened a test center in Dallas, giving customers a location to test an array of RFID scenarios, a spokesman told UPI.
Even food and drug companies are eyeing the technology, fearful that rogues may tamper with or, worse yet, counterfeit the nation's pharmaceutical supplies.
The technology also is garnering funds at government research laboratories, as scientists are anxious to improve the state of the art for RFID. Last month, the U.S. Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory reached a development deal with Spectrum Signal Processing Inc. for a RFID platform, endorsed by the Pentagon, for an array of applications, a spokesman told UPI.
RFID security technology currently comes in many forms, experts said.
"Tags on containers, for rail cars, are fairly large and are active," John Parkinson, chief technologist, North American Region, with the consulting firm Capgemini in suburban Chicago, told UPI. "They contain a power source and can broadcast a signal that can be tracked by a satellite. Load the tag with a manifest of what's in the container, and you can track it as it moves along the global supply chain."
Other kinds of tags operate passively but still are good for catching stowaways, Parkinson said.
"Pass the tag through a broadcast RF (radio frequency) from a reader and the tag gets enough energy to squawk out a short code so it can be used to look up what's on the pallet or in the carton," he said. "If the passive tag IDs point to data that specifies size and weight, a quick calculation and weighbridge datum tells you if the container is full and over or under weight. Stowaways or added materials would show up."
Some technology companies, like RAE Systems Inc. and a wireless semiconductor maker called Ember Corp., don't think RFID tags provide enough information or security. They believe wireless sensor technology will be more effective at monitoring shipping containers.
Around Christmas last year, the companies demonstrated a prototype wireless security monitoring system, designed to help carriers of cargo comply with federal regulations seeking to prevent terrorists from smuggling nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction into the United States. The Department of Homeland Security last Nov. 18 declared it wanted cargo companies that ship to American ports to equip their containers to prevent terrorist threats.
The prototype technology developed by RAE Systems and Ember uses embedded RF chips and networking software to wrap cargo in a virtual Web network, which can detect weapons grade materials, as well as detail when containers have been opened.
"It's easier to detect potential terrorists in American ports when we know what's happening inside the container at all times," RAE Systems Chief Executive Officer Robert Chen said in a statement.
More than 7 million shipping containers pass through U.S. ports each year, experts said.
"The sheer volume of cargo entering our country every day makes it too easy for terrorists to smuggle dangerous cargo," Ember CEO Jeff Grammer said in a statement.
The movement for wireless technology to track potential terrorist threats also is creating some consumer spin-offs, experts said.
The Airport IT Trends Survey, sponsored by the airline information technology industry, reported 8 percent of responding airports already offer RFID tracking for passenger baggage. This is expected to increase to 25 percent of airports during the next two years. That could, one day, mean no more irretrievable luggage, lost forever in some cargo bin.
Long-term, RFID also could speed up the process for importers to bring legitimate goods into the United States.
The Department of Homeland Security has started using RFID tags to identify freight-carrying trucks as they cross the border with Canada and, by the end of the year, the technology is expected to be deployed to other land entry points into the United States. Another use is RFID cards for those people who frequently cross the border into the U.S.
Congress is eyeing these technology developments, especially now that the Pentagon and Homeland Security are pushing RFID projects, and views them as replacing less-effective video surveillance methods.
"RFID chips are more powerful than today's video surveillance technology," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., during a conference this spring at the Georgetown University Law Center. "RFIDs are more reliable, they are 100 percent automatic, and they are likely to become pervasive, because they are significantly less expensive."
Gene Koprowski covers telecommunications for UPI Science News. E-mail email@example.com