RFID scuttled by costs and shipping politics

The severe backlash to a recent U.S. government decision allowing a United Arab Emirates-owned ports company to operate in six U.S.-based ports illustrates just how skittish the western world is over the situation surrounding sea terminal security. It is becoming painfully obvious to most observers in the developed world that the lack of adequate protective measures and systems governing these entryways to their nations represents the soft underbelly of national defense, ripe for exploitation by terrorist groups.

The sensitivity around port security is understandable. Hundreds of thousands of shipping containers are unloaded at ports worldwide every year by ships of often unknown or hazy origin. It’s easily within reason that one or more of those containers could contain enough explosives to inflict the type of damage witnessed on Sept. 11, 2001, or worse. The inability of any nation to adequately track ships beyond the horizon view of its ports makes the situation on the high seas particularly dangerous. There is even the possibility of a vessel being packed to the gunwales with TNT and driven right into a harbour such as New York’s or London’s, with obviously disastrous consequences.

One solution that offers some legitimate hope to the situation involves the deployment of RFID tags within shipping containers. The tags could be used to identify exactly what is in each container and set off non-compliance alarms for officials when what is supposed to be inside its metal walls does not match with a list of acceptable items. Just as each can of pop can be tracked and identified by the likes of Wal-Mart, so too can each and every container of salt, beans or sugar be tracked by authorities.

While appealing on paper, the concept seems doomed to remain on the drafting table. The simple reason is cost. The financial burden of ramping up and installing a comprehensive RFID tagging system throughout every far-flung arm of the global shipping industry would have to be shouldered by the shipping firms themselves, which to date have put up significant resistance to the notion. Sadly, it appears no significant steps will ever be taken until a monumental catastrophe occurs.

The shipping situation represents yet another example of a useful technology, capable of helping to solve a seemingly insoluble problem, having to remain in dry dock due to the financial and political straightjackets flung around it. While there have been similar examples in the past, this could end up being the most regrettable.

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