The Softer Side of Technology

April 1, 2004
Soon, electronic sensors for containers will be available with some amazing features. Some will contain global positioning systems so they can tell you

Soon, electronic sensors for containers will be available with some amazing features. Some will contain global positioning systems so they can tell you where they are along any point of their journey. Some will have various environmental sensors to detect changes in temperature and humidity, for example, or even detect less-than-friendly biological organisms. Others will sense weapons of mass destruction, although no one is saying how they will do this. There will be timers and counters and recorders, and all kinds of other features on these electronic sensors. Just give technology developers a hint of what you'd like, and sit back and see what they come up with.

You might think, that with all these features to protect us from "unfriendlies," our security processes and procedures would be great and that we have everything under control with no need to worry about our ports or borders.

Not necessarily.

While technology offers wonderful electromechanical features, it also offers other features -- ones that are less obvious and less tangible. In fact, you might even consider them "softer" features. And some of these features could get us into trouble.

Technology can be so good at controlling one factor or element that it's easy to install it and forget about it. This can lead to a "soft" feature we'll call overconfidence. When it comes to electronic seals or any other technology for the security of our country, overconfidence is a less-than-attractive attribute. But it's a real consideration with all the debate and politicking going on.

Realistically, it will be at least a decade before we have solid technical security measures in place. There are standards to develop and approve, funds and financial resources to find, and decisions to make, and re-make, regarding which department will handle what. But government representatives, executives and even the general public will buy into the idea that all we need is to install electronic seals and other technical security devices and our job is done.

It's always wise to remember that any technology can be defeated. All it takes are resources and motivations.

Therefore, attention might naturally turn toward processes and procedures. Combined with technical solutions, this adds another layer of protection to the security issue. The right processes and procedures can help reduce the effects that resources and motivation can have when it comes to defeating technology. However, it's also wise to remember that if your security processes and procedures are not adequate, no amount of technology will make up for the flaws and holes that others might exploit. We all have anecdotes about poor, incomplete and even dishonest processes. Material handlers should ensure that all the procedures they are implementing do more than simply collect a bunch of signatures on a stack of paperwork.

Which brings us to the human factor in the equation. Another "soft" feature is that once you've installed technology and automated a process, you can cut your labor costs. In the current environment, that feature will not be viewed by some (maybe many) as positive.

This will be an issue, even with electronic seals. Port operators already are dealing with the many ramifications of technology and security. Remember the port strike not too long ago regarding the need for keypunch operators? We may face this issue again, but with e-seals.

Electronic seals on containers are a form of technology, "... and many port terminal operators are looking at these devices to efficiently move containers through a port, without human intervention," noted Scott Kirk of EJ Brooks.

How you handle the automation of tasks and the subsequent retraining of the people who used to perform those tasks will have an effect on the security of your technical solutions. Technology is great, but we can never forget the softer, human factors involved when implementing technology. Keep in mind, statistics show that more than 70 percent of computer hacking comes from inside a company, usually an unhappy employee.

Technology alone is an insufficient answer. Processes alone are insufficient. And people alone are insufficient. The real solution to security is at least three-pronged: technical, procedural and human. The best technology functions in partnership with people, freeing them from tedious tasks so that people can handle more complex projects. While you're upgrading your technology, upgrade your people, too.

Leslie Langnau, contributing editor, [email protected]