"SPY CRANES": DANGER OR DISTRACTION?
Recently we have seen a number of reports, fueled by members of Congress in the U.S. who have latched onto the concept of the Chinese spying on our ports through crane technology including software and cameras. There is a fair amount of equipment that is made in China that we use in ports, particularly ZPMC cranes. While a great deal of this equipment is Chinese built, in many cases the software and the control systems come from other nations depending on what is required. Most ship to shore cranes (STS) have diagnostic equipment that allow the manufacturer to diagnose crane problems and monitor maintenance requirements. In addition, even if cranes could be used to view port activities, cargo packed in containers does not really allow determination of specifically what is being handled. Most ports already report container volume so transparency already exists that could be utilized by other interests. For those worried about surveillance, a greater danger exists where foreign interests can hack into port security systems or into government customs databases and control software, particularly related to releasing containers which may contain other than allowable cargoes, such as drugs or weapons. Crane software and hardware cannot access information about where cargo originates or where it is going and cannot tap into data that indicates what containers actually hold in regard to cargo. If anything, crane operations could be disrupted by foreign interests who could compromise operating software , but there are a number of ports that use a wide range of equipment from other nations that would likely not be impacted if an adversary were to take such actions. US ports under their security plans should focus on making sure they have adequate means of detection and backup plans in case such actions were taken.
Where elected officials may be interested in the headlines that come with crane surveillance media hype, of greater, but mostly overlooked, is the strategic control of port facilities through out the international supply chain, many controlled by the Chinese which includes transportation by their national ocean carriers. While there are virtually no US ocean carriers handling cargo, and no US interests in most foreign ports, US dependance on the international supply chain remains critical. International cargo only represents about 10% to 12% of all cargo moved throughout the US on an annual basis but nearly one third of all US imports originates from China. Eighty percent of the world’s ocean commerce moves by containers with Asian carriers handling over 40% of that trade.
While experts continue to try to determine the extent of how cybersecurity can be compromised, and how that information can be used, the industry’s nearly total dependance on advanced computer technology will no doubt continue to raise concerns about how this will impact the general public. With the increased utilization of block chain technology, this will no doubt increase those levels of concern. For now however, container crane surveillance is the least of our industry’s concerns, but as I often say, never say never. Perhaps someday it would be helpful if US ports could buy a US designed and built STS crane for our ports. After all, didn’t we invent containerization?