On the 36th floor of a Chicago office building two small industrial containers are scanned to check they are suitable and then gingerly filled with polyvinyl chloride and hydrochloric acid – two of the most hazardous chemicals known to man. They are about to depart on a journey that will be monitored every step of the way by technology that can alert watching controllers to the slightest deviation from the predetermined itinerary.
Before the miniature containers can be handed over to a waiting truck driver his irises are scanned and checked against records at the freight company that employs him to ensure he is in fact the person assigned to the job. As he manoeuvres the poisonous materials to the rear doors of the truck he must place his finger tips on a scanner that again checks his identity before the lock is released.
Once on the road his every move is plotted via a global positioning system (GPS) that can pinpoint his location to within a few yards. Should the driver make an unscheduled stop and open the doors, managers will be immediately alerted to his unauthorised movements. When the truck eventually arrives at its destination, radio frequency identity (RFID) tags on the containers will again be scanned and information on their contents, history and destination transmitted back to head office.
More than make believe
Although the truck doors are dummies made from unwanted filing cabinets, the poisonous chemicals just make believe and the carefully planned journey involves going no further than the computer model on which it has been created, security systems like this could be commonplace in logistics within a few years, its designers say.
The Chicago office in which the demonstrator was developed belongs to Accenture Technology Labs which assembled the system from off-the shelf-components. Iris scanning, fingerprint recognition, GPS networks and RFID may be rare at present, but the technology is already being used in security applications.
The initial spur to Accenture’s project came from the US Department of Transport which two years ago published a list of 25 requirements for safeguarding the shipment of hazardous chemicals in trucks. In the wake of 9/11 the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration pinpointed hazardous materials as the biggest security risk in the US transport industry and set out to accelerate the application of technologies that were available, but not widely used.
The Department of Transport’s detailed wish-list ranged from remote cargo locking and unlocking by the dispatcher to systems capable of verifying a driver’s identity if a vehicle is stationary for over 10 minutes.
And concern about protecting hazardous or vulnerable loads is mirrored in other transport sectors. For example, the International Ship and Port Security (ISPS) code requires all ships plying international routes to be security-certified by July this year or face the prospect of being barred from many ports. Some 46,000 ships calling at more than 2,800 ports will be required to provide security training to staff and develop audited security plans and procedures to counter potential terrorist threats.
‘Are people interested in technological answers to these problems?’ asks Joel Osman, senior manager at Accenture Labs. ‘When clients see our system we get a lot of nods, especially from chemical manufacturers, and then some challenging questions on costs and legislation.’
The costs, Osman acknowledges, are high because of the amount of integration necessary to get the systems to talk to each other and the reliance on comparatively expensive wireless communications. Despite the drawbacks Accenture has been signed up by customers to implement some elements of its prototype but most potential users are ‘hanging in the wind’, says Osman. Companies are waiting to see what technology the US authorities might insist on in future legislation, he explains.
Accenture is convinced that its high technology approach to security will find takers in a variety of businesses, many keen to reduce shrinkage. However, there are important questions to be answered such as how easy it might be to circumvent such elaborate defences and which organisation in the supply chain would ultimately be responsible for an integrated security system.
Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet. admits Osman. ‘It’s difficult enough to stay one step ahead of criminals. It’s more a question of whether we can put enough checks in place so that if one security feature fails, another will pick up.’