You could say it was close ... but no cigars. To the thieves planning a big heist last summer, it looked like a simple enough job. They'd move in over the weekend, break into the parked truck carrying $50,000 worth of cigars and discreetly remove the stogies, leaving the rest of the LTL shipment intact. But their carefully laid plans went up in smoke when the cigars' owner, who was monitoring his goods from a remote location, detected tampering to the trailer and notified the FBI.
Things didn't go much better for two rings of thieves on the Eastern Seaboard last year. This past fall, a fencing ring was caught with $250,000 worth of stolen designer clothing when New Jersey State Police raided the warehouse where they were handing off their plunder. Just months earlier, thieves loading their haul ($300,000 worth of high-end apparel) after breaking into a Windsor, Conn., warehouse were apprehended when state and local police burst onto the scene.
In all three cases, what gave the thieves away were wireless cargo security devices—covert asset trackers compact enough to be tucked into a pallet of laptops or carton of prescription drugs (or even an informant's pocket). In an emergency, they can be activated to beam real-time location data from wherever they may be—on the open road, at a truck stop or even inside a building—via cellular tower triangulation and GPS (global positioning system) satellite technology. Law enforcement officials can track their whereabouts with pinpoint accuracy, significantly boosting prospects for the goods' prompt recovery.
Wireless cargo tracking systems are not new. Trucking companies have used satellite tracking to keep tabs on their fleet vehicles for years. But satellite signals cannot reach all locations, making the systems less than foolproof. The new tracking devices get around that problem by employing both cellular towers and GPS technology to transmit location data. And because the devices don't need to "see the sky" to determine location, they can operate in places that traditional GPS cannot.
The new asset trackers also have an advantage in that they're much less readily detectable than the tracking devices installed in trucks. Thieves have no way of knowing which pallets or cartons harbor the devices, and they're unlikely to spend time sifting through the packages to find them.
The technology is still in its infancy, however. It remains to be seen if wireless security solutions (also known as location-based systems) will provide the long- awaited breakthrough in deterring cargo theft—a problem estimated at anywhere from $10 billion to $50 billion in the United States alone. In the meantime, law enforcement officials say they're happy to have the high-tech help. "Some of the newer GPS type of tracking systems are definitely a boon to law enforcement," says special agent Steve Siegel, a spokesman for the FBI. "If you can put some kind of tracking device into a pallet of goods or in cargo containers that can be tracked from a distance, it's a definite benefit to law enforcement and a deterrent for criminals."
As Siegel sees it, the main benefit isn't so much theft prevention as asset recovery. Oftentimes, law enforcement officials don't hear about a theft until hours, days or weeks after it's occurred, forcing them to play a frustrating game of catchup. But with access to real-time location information, they can move right in. "Anytime you can recover something in a short ... time," says Siegel, "it's a benefit to law enforcement."
Spyware in a good sense
The market appears to be embracing the technology. The two major players, Bulldog Technologies of Richmond, British Columbia, and SC-integrity/KRI of Bothell, Wash., both report booming sales. In the past several months alone, Bulldog Technologies has signed contracts with pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, retailer Barnes & Noble, carrier Shadow Lines Transportation, and a Fortune 500 food manufacturer that won't discuss its plans because it believes using the covert tracking devices will give it a competitive advantage.
Bulldog Technologies' entry into the market is a system called MiniBOSS, which at 4 by 3 by 2 inches and weighing just 6 ounces, falls on the small end of the tracking device spectrum. The unit is designed to work in conjunction with the Bulldog Security Gateway, a proprietary automatic vehicle location software program that lets a user track his quarry's movement using a standard PC.
Bulldog's tracking service offers users more than disembodied geographic coordinates, however. Its application provides a link to Google Earth that lets customers see an actual satellite photograph of the tracker's exact location. The satellite photograph is overlaid onto a road map, allowing users to identify places and roads by name. Michael Olsen, Bulldog's vice president of sales, tells of a customer who pulled off the highway and called in to challenge the Bulldog staff to tell him where he was. "We located him with the MiniBOSS, and using Google Earth, we were able to tell him that he was at a truck stop, parked in the parking lot," Olsen reports. "We could actually see a picture of the trailers. Although [it was] a stored photograph and not real time, it gave us fantastic insight into the actual layout of the area."
Bulldog's competitor, SC-integrity/KRI, is also bullish on its growth prospects. The company expects business to increase exponentially in the next 24 months. It reports that its SC-tracker devices are currently in use throughout the United States with more than 30 member companies, including shippers and manufacturers, carriers, third-party logistics service providers, retailers, and law enforcement agencies. (SC-integrity/KRI refers to its customers as members because of their shared network agreements.) The company expects to triple its member base and increase the number of units deployed twelve-fold in 2006. It has even greater expectations for 2007; SC-integrity's projections call for a whopping 30-fold increase in the number of units in the field.
Both tracker makers like to point out that their devices have applications beyond just security. Bulldog, for example, notes that its tracker can perform other monitoring tasks, such as measuring temperatures for temperature-controlled deliveries.
In fact, those non-security related applications might someday eclipse security when it comes to driving sales. King Rogers, executive vice president at SC-integrity/KRI, reports that one of his company's clients, a national carrier, plans to use the trackers to help it hone its delivery time estimates. "Obviously, if the proof of concept plays out for predicting ETA times, and we think it will, the security aspect of the system becomes just an add-on feature because it pays for itself by virtue of being able to predict ETAs," says Rogers. "We are talking about an evolving technology that ... is probably going to be the hottest technology in the supply chain over the next couple of years, not only for security reasons but for supply chain management opportunities."
Of course, all this capability comes at a price. According to previously published reports, the SC-integrity systems cost about $1,500 per unit, not including a monthly fee for network airtime associated with tracking. Bulldog Technologies' tracker costs about $700. Monthly fees for the service, according to Olsen, can run up to $80 a month, depending on usage. Both companies say prices will drop as technology improves and more companies sign on. In the meantime, they note, lower insurance premiums can help offset the costs.
Not so fast
Not everyone is convinced that the covert asset tracking devices will revolutionize cargo security. Naysayers point out that criminals, too, keep up with technological advances, and are probably already at work figuring out ways to disable the trackers' signals. A motivated thief might also be able to subvert the device by breaking up a shipment into small lots.
The systems' cost may also hamper their adoption. "In the conversations I've had with clients about wireless cargo security, the products do not seem to be gaining a great deal of popularity at this point," says Barry Brandman, president of Danbee Investigations, a Midland Park, N.J., company that provides investigative, loss prevention and security consulting services to many of the top names in the logistics industry. "There still seem to be some serious reservations about cost, reliability, [and] electronic compatibility."
There may be technical difficulties as well. "Some people believe that there are still a lot of technical kinks that need to be worked out," Brandman adds, "and they haven't been able to convince their executive committees that the expense justified the gains." All that could change quickly if the manufacturers succeed in debugging the bugs, however. If they do, cargo thieves will be the first to feel the sting.