Port security

An ISPS port code being enforced in Vardø, Norway. The Norwegian Hurtigruten is in the background.
This article is about seaport security. For computer networking port security, see MAC filtering.

Port security refers to the defense, law and treaty enforcement, and counterterrorism activities that fall within the port and maritime domain. It includes the protection of the seaports themselves, the protection and inspection of the cargo moving through the ports, and maritime security.

Internationally, port security is governed by rules issued by the International Maritime Organization and its 2002 International Ship and Port Facility Security Code. Additionally, some United States-based programs have become de facto global port security programs, including the Container Security Initiative and the Customs Trade Partnership against Terrorism.

Port security in the United States

In the United States, port security is handled jointly by the Coast Guard and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, both components of the Department of Homeland Security. Local law enforcement agencies and the FBI also have a role in port security at the local and regional level.

Port security gained prominence politically in 2006 due to the sale of British company P&O Ports (including its American port assets) to Dubai Ports World. The ensuing controversy led to charges that the purchase would pose a national security risk. In March 2006, Dubai Ports World announced that it would sell off its American assets, and they were sold to AIG in December 2006. The new attention to port security that the controversy generated led to the passage of the SAFE Port Act (H.R. 4954) in Congress in 2006.


The importance of the container shipping industry is equally matched by its vulnerabilities to terrorist attack. The U.S. maritime system consists of over 300 sea and river ports with more than 3,700 cargo and passenger terminals. The United States and global economies depend on commercial shipping as the most reliable, cost efficient method of transporting goods, with U.S. ports handling approximately 20% of the maritime trade worldwide.[1] The volume of trade throughout the U.S. and the world creates a desirable target for terrorist attack. An attack on any aspect of the maritime system, mainly major ports, can severely hamper trade and potentially affect the global economy by billions of dollars.

The security of ports and their deficiencies are numerous and leave US ports vulnerable to terrorist attack. The vulnerabilities of our ports are many, leading to potential security breaches in almost all aspects of the container shipping industry. With the sheer volume of maritime traffic, there is serious concern of cargo/passenger ship hijackings and pirate attack, as well as accountability of the millions of shipping containers transported worldwide. Given the overwhelming number of ships and containers, there are many areas of concern regarding the security of U.S. ports.

Cargo containers represent the largest area of concern in terms of security and vulnerability. With an estimated global inventory of over 12 million, the securing, tracking, and inspection of all shipping containers is a difficult task.[2] The largest obstacle to overcome with cargo and port security is cost: the cost of inspecting the containers, and the cost of shipping delays from those inspections. A large container ship has the capacity to carry in excess of 3,000 containers, making inspection impossible without disrupting shipment. More than 6 million cargo containers enter U.S. seaports annually, of which only 2% are physically inspected by Customs.[2]

Terrorists can, and eventually may, exploit the shipping industries deficiencies in cargo security. Potential threats include the smuggling of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), a radiological "dirty" bomb, a conventional explosive device, and transportation of terrorist operatives, as well. Studies have claimed a Hiroshima sized nuclear detonation at a major seaport would kill fifty thousand to one million people.[3] The container shipping system is an attractive outlet for terrorist activities. It is common knowledge within the industry that security measures of major ports cannot have a significant effect on the movement of goods,[1] thereby allowing exploitation of the system for terrorist use. Container shipping is an amalgam of many different actors: the exporter, the importer, freight forwarder, customs broker, excise inspectors, truckers, railroad workers, dock workers, and the crews of the vessels themselves.[1] Greenberg (2006) states "that whenever and wherever a container is handled during movement represents a potential vulnerability for the security and integrity of the cargo".[1] This produces many different windows of opportunity for terrorist infiltration of containers.

There are other areas of vulnerability that terrorist may infiltrate. The geographical/physical layout of the ports themselves is of concern. The protection and security of the landside perimeter of a port is difficult due to their large size. Ports located in highly urbanized areas allow terrorists a densely populated area in which to hide while infiltrating or escaping the port area at their perimeter. The high volume of trucks entering and exiting port facilities pose a threat to the port, as well as surrounding geographical areas. Exiting trucks may contain WMD or terrorist operatives that are to infiltrate a surrounding metropolitan area, i.e., transporting a chemical explosive device (from the Port of Los Angeles) to a more densely populated area (downtown Los Angeles). Container ships anchored at port facilities are particularly vulnerable to both highjacking and explosive devices as they are stationary targets. Most crews of cargo ships are unarmed, and would be defenseless to an armed attack. The disabling of a ship at port is enough to halt all activity at that port for an extended period of time, especially if the disabled ship is blocking a throughway for other vessels.

The economic impact of such an attack would be disastrous on a global scale. An example of such an economic impact can be drawn from a labor-management dispute that closed ports along the west coast of the United States. These port closures cost the U.S. economy approximately $1 billion per day for the first 5 days, and rose exponentially thereafter.[2] When the International Longshore and Warehouse Union strike closed 29 West Coast ports for 10 days, one study estimated that it cost the United States economy $19.4 billion.[4] Many manufacturing companies of the world employ a just-in-time distribution model, allowing for lower inventory carrying costs and savings from warehouse space. The shipping industry is essential to this method, as its speed and reliability allow new inventory to be shipped and received precisely when it is needed. The adopting of the just-in-time method has dropped business logistics cost from 16.1% of U.S. GDP to 10.1% between 1980 and 2000.[2] Although this method has dropped costs significantly, it has put a stranglehold on security options, as the shipping times of these shipments are exact and cannot afford delays from inspection. Other aspects of economic impact include costs of altering shipping routes away from a disabled port, as well as delays from ports operating over capacity that receive the rerouted ships. Most ports operate at near capacity and can ill afford an attack of this nature.

Although there are many government sponsored agencies involved with port security, the responsibility of providing that security is of state and local governments. Allen (2007) states that "under the protective principle, a state has jurisdiction to prescribe and enforce laws against acts that threaten vital state interests". The protective principle "recognizes that a state may apply its laws to protect vital state interests, such as the state's national security or governmental functions".[5] Some ports may enact their own police forces in addition to city law enforcement.

Federal agencies that are involved with port security include the Coast Guard, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). These three agencies are now under the jurisdiction of the Department of Homeland Security. The Maritime Administration (MARAD) is also, while the Coast Guard and Customs are the two prominent agencies at ports. The Coast Guard is responsible for evaluating, boarding, and inspecting commercial ships as they approach U.S. waters, for countering terrorist threats in U.S. ports, and for helping to protect U.S. Navy ships in U.S. ports. CBP's primary responsibility is the inspecting of cargo, including containers that commercial ships bring into U.S. ports. CBP is also responsible for the inspection of ship crews and passengers aboard the vessel. The TSA's focus was initially focused on air transportation, but now has the authority of all modes of transportation. MARAD is a civilian agency that is part of the Department of Transportation. MARAD publishes Maritime Security Reports and national planning guides on port security.[2]

There have been proposals to consolidate federal agencies responsible for border security. The consolidation may offer some long-term benefits, but three challenges may hinder a successful implementation of security enhancing initiatives at the nations ports: standards, funding, and collaboration.[6]

The first challenge involves implementing a set of standards that defines what safeguards a port should have in place. Under the Coast Guard's direction, a set of standards is being developed for all U.S. ports to use in conducting port vulnerability assessments. However, many questions remain about whether the thousands of people who have grown accustomed to working in certain ways at the nation’s ports will agree to, and implement, the kinds of changes that a substantially changed environment will require.

The second challenge involves determining the amounts needed and sources of funding for the kinds of security improvements that are likely to be required to meet the standards. Florida's experience indicates that security measures are likely to be more expensive than many anticipate, and determining how to pay these costs and how the federal government should participate will present a challenge.

The third challenge is ensuring that there is sufficient cooperation and coordination among the many stakeholders to make the security measures work. Experience to date indicates that this coordination is more difficult than many stakeholders anticipate, and that continued practice and testing will be key in making it work.

The September 11 attacks demanded a new initiative be taken in maritime security efforts. The Coast Guard is initializing an approach that will improve the quality and timing of shipping and carrier information so that it may be properly evaluated for terrorist threats. This allows more time for proper recognition of vessels, and will aid in the flow of legitimate shipping vessels. Together with the Navy, the Coast Guard has developed the use of maritime domain awareness, which is essentially the collection of all intelligence gathered from government agencies, and assembled to provide a common operating picture.[7]

CBP has initiated new programs to aid in counter terrorist efforts by creating the Container Security Initiative (CSI) and the Customs Trade Partnership against Terrorism (C-TPAT). The CSI consists of four core elements: Using intelligence and automated information to identify and target containers that pose a risk for terrorism, pre-screening those containers that pose a risk at the port of departure before they arrive at U.S. ports, using detection technology to quickly pre-screen containers that pose a risk, and using smarter, tamper-evident containers. Under C-TPAT, shippers commit to improving the security of their cargo shipments, and in return, they receive a variety of benefits from the government.[8]


Whilst the threat of terrorism cannot be totally be dismissed the day-to-day operations of port and harbour police more often deals with more mundane issues, such as theft (including pilferage by dock workers), smuggling, illegal immigration; health and safety with regards to hazardous cargoes, safe docking of vessels, and safe operation of vehicles and plant; environmental protection e.g. spillages and contaminated bilge water.

See also


  1. 1 2 3 4 Greenberg, M. D., et al. (2006). Maritime Terrorism: Risk and Liability. Santa Monica: RAND Corporation.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 Frittelli, J. F., et al. (2003). Port and Maritime Security: Background and Issues. New York: Novinka Books.
  3. Abt, Clark C. (2003). The Economic Impact of Nuclear Terrorist Attacks on Freight Transport Systems in an Age of Seaport Vulnerability. Retrieved March 19, 2008, from http://www.abtassociates.com/reports/es-economic_impact_of_nuclear_terrorist_attacks.pdf
  4. Cohen, Stephen. (2006). "Boom Boxes: Containers and Terrorism", in Protecting the Nation's Seaports: Balancing Security and Cost. Retrieved March 19, 2008 from http://www.ppic.org/content/pubs/report /R_606JHR.pdf#page=179
  5. Allen, C. H. (2007). Maritime Counterproliferation Operations and the Rule of Law. Westport, CT: Praeger Security International.
  6. United States Accounting Office. (2002, August). Port Security: Nation Faces Formidable Challenges in Making New Initiatives Successful. Retrieved November 18, 2008 from http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d02993t.pdf
  7. Unknown. (2005, September). Intelligence: Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA). Retrieved March 19, 2008, from GlobalSecurity.org Web site: http://www.globalsecurity.org/intell/systems/mda.htm
  8. Unknown. (2007, March). Homeland Security: Container Security Initiative (CSI). Retrieved March 20, 2008, from GlobalSecurity.org Web site: http://www.globalsecurity.org/security/ops/csi.htm

External links

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