How Criminals Traffic Drugs, Goods, and Humans By Boat

Can smart technology help track the 20 million shipping containers moving the world's goods?
August 4, 2021, 10:00am

Every six minutes, a ship enters or leaves the port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands, one of the 130,000 ships pass through the biggest port in Europe.

Due to the sheer volume of goods processed through this port, one of 835 active ports across the globe, illicit products—from potentially lethal counterfeit goods to narcotics to pesticides—can pass through with relative ease.

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“It’s virtually impossible to open every single shipment. If you’re an enforcement officer, facing a container ship with 20,000 containers, coming to a harbor, staying there for half a day, you have very little time to do your checks effectively,” says Piotr Stryszowski, Senior Economist at the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

About 85 percent of all consumer goods are shipped in one of the world’s 20 million shipping containers, and the technology to monitor that is woefully inadequate.

“Ports are our main hubs for the global economy, but they have a big security issue,“ says Erwin Rademaker, Program Manager at the Port of Rotterdam. “Containers are very dumb objects. They can’t tell you anything about their status, where they are, whether they are secured or not, when they are opened or not.” 

In most cases, containers are secured with only the same type of lock you might have had on your high school locker, making it relatively simple for anyone to open the containers and add or remove items at will. Meanwhile, the records documenting what is in each container, who owns it, and where the goods inside are headed are still kept on paper, making it easy for criminals to make changes and cover their tracks.

So, what can be done? Rademaker, for one, has called for a switch to so-called “smart” containers that can communicate with the outside world and send out alerts about unusual behavior. These high-tech containers feature scanners that register goods put in and taken out, sensors that communicate temperature and movement, and cameras that monitor the container’s interior. They are secured by programmable smart locks that better restrict access. This is all made possible by 4G mobile connectivity run off of solar-powered batteries, and a switchboard that regulates power consumption.

Of course, such a change would require significant international cooperation. “No single country can cope with this problem on its own,” says Stryszowski, “but all countries can win if working together...because at the end of the day, it's all citizens (that are) losing.”