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Theft Replaces Terrorism as Geofencing’s Target

This story appears in the July 8 print edition of Transport Topics.

Geofencing, the ability to use tracking or communications systems to alert carriers if a truck goes off its specified route, originally was touted for its anti-terrorism potential.

The idea was that if terrorists captured a tank truck carrying a flammable, explosive or poisonous load, carriers could alert authorities when the truck left its designated route.

However, there has been little or no opportunity to use that capability, so carriers deploying the systems are finding other ways to use their systems, some related to security concerns such as cargo theft, others to improving operational efficiency.

“I am not aware that such technology has ever prevented a terrorist attack,” said Daniel Furth, president of the National Tank Truck Carriers, adding, that the “primary reason one would use it is to monitor their terminal facilities to protect from theft.”

Asked about the possibility of the theft of an entire tank truck, Furth said, “It’s not that common that a full tank trailer would be stolen. Most of the trailer thefts that we’ve seen lately were from parking facilities and wash racks where the trailers were likely stolen for scrap purposes.”

Now, with incidents of stolen cargo rising, according to the latest report by the National Insurance Crime Bureau, the theft-prevention aspect of geofencing becomes more critical. NICB reported that cargo thefts increased to 1,215 in 2011, up 17% from 2010.

A recent FBI Web commentary on cargo theft portrayed it as a “gateway crime” to even bigger problems that could include terrorism.

“In many instances, a cargo theft investigation will turn into a case involving organized crime, public corruption, health care fraud, insurance fraud, drug trafficking, money laundering or possibly even terrorism,” according to the FBI commentary. “Criminal groups use the illegal proceeds they gain from stealing cargo to fund their criminal operations. And the fear is that terrorists could use their proceeds to launch attacks or fund training.”

Stephen Keppler, executive director of the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance, said, “We have not discussed this issue [of terrorism security] in depth for some time within our organization. We did after 9/11 and actually participated in a demonstration project with [the U.S. Department of Transportation] and [the Transportation Security Administration] on this subject. “There certainly are [security] applications that have been built and are in use today using the technology.” Keppler added.

However, Randy Boyles, senior vice president of tailored solutions for Minneapolis-based PeopleNet, said the industry is not looking at terrorism prevention as a priority use of geofencing — but he said it can help carriers in many ways.

Boyles cited a situation a few years ago in which a customer was trying out some new equipment and wanted geofences around competitor locations to be sure his trucks didn’t go there.

“You can take that a few steps further,” Boyles said, “and apply the concept to geofencing around schools, government buildings and other areas you would want to know well in advance if a hazmat truck found its way there.”

Boyles said the trucking industry would quickly become more focused on terrorism prevention if there was an incident involving truck transport.

“We’ve had planes crash into buildings, but we haven’t had a real mass poisoning [from contaminated truck cargo] or a hijacked gasoline truck,” Boyles said. “Those will change everybody’s attitudes.”

Henry Popplewell, senior vice president and general manager of SkyBitz, based in Herndon, Va., said geofencing can alert carriers to unwanted border crossings by their trucks.

“If a piece of equipment crosses a border into a specific country, you might want very active reporting for security reasons,” Popplewell said.

International “borders are a particular concern,” said Courtney DeMilio, senior director of national accounts and national sales for LoJack Corp., based in Phoenix. “You don’t want to get into a situation where you’re trying to bring a vehicle back from another country.”

Christian Schenk, senior vice president of product and marketing strategy for XRS Corp., Minneapolis, said that with its geofencing platform, “we can track states and countries, and some of our customers are using that functionality for the purpose of identifying when a customer leaves the country.”

“We actually had a situation where someone crossed the border and was caught with illegal materials,” Schenk said, “so we can set up alerts that allow the customer to say, ‘If we cross into Mexico, I want to know right now. If we cross into Indiana, you can let me know on Monday.”

Regardless of whether it’s about transporting freight across national borders or across the country, “there is freight being hauled by our customers that no one would want to get in a terrorist’s hands,” said Jeff Griswold, product manager for Omnitracs, which is owned by San Diego-based Qualcomm Inc. “As a result, there are a number of security things that go on that we have a part in.”

He would not disclose details of those “security things,” but Griswold offered an example of when an anti-theft application of geofencing would take on security implications: “If someone is hauling Stinger missiles from wherever the manufacturing plant is to an Army depot, we don’t want the bad guys to get those,” he said.

In a more mundane example, Griswold also described a scenario in which a driver has authorization to spend a night in a hotel room, and the carrier creates a geofence “containment field” around the hotel parking lot that will create an alert if anything happens to the truck while the driver is inside the hotel.

LoJack’s DeMilio said the most basic use of geofencing in theft prevention is to create an alert in case an asset leaves the location where it is supposed to be.

“If you have utility vehicles on a job site, you might leave those vehicles there for the weekend,” DeMilio said. “It’s not like you have a concrete wall to keep your vehicles safe. So you can erect a virtual geofence. You could be at the pool and receive an alert that says, ‘Hey, this vehicle just left the job site.’ You don’t have to wait until Monday morning to see that.”

Pete Allen, CEO of Cadec Global Inc., a mobile technology services provider based in Manchester, N.H., said his company focuses on using geofencing to create advanced alerts and to automate the logging of information.

“We can use those geofences to tell the onboard computer to do the additional functions like if I have a route plan, which is what most of our customers do,” Allen said. “I can enable what’s called an auto-arrive on the onboard computer, and when it enters the geofence and the vehicle comes to a stop, the system itself will take the pain of the driver entering data — to say, you have arrived, you are now on duty.”

Allen said the system then will prompt the driver to make the pickup or delivery. The system also can warn a store or other recipient that a truck is about to arrive, giving them notice so they can open a receiving dock and prepare personnel for the shipment.

But like any technology, geofencing can perform only if it’s working.

Susan Chandler, executive director of American Trucking Associations’ Safety Management Council, said thieves have had success in recent years figuring out how to disable the technology, and developers and users have had to find solutions to that problem.

“The newer technologies are trying to find ways to hide the device or find ways of keeping crooks from disabling it,” Chandler said. “In the last few years, they’ve moved it from the tractor to the trailer and then hidden it in the cargo.”

But even with these advances, Chandler said, she thinks the industry still has a way to go before technology is able to thwart the most skilled thieves.

“The sophisticated crook is going to watch [the driver] from the moment he picks up that load, and he’s going to follow him until that truck is in a vulnerable place,” Chandler said. “And he’s going to wait until he stops to go to the bathroom, or get his eight hours of sleep. And even if [the driver’s] there in the sleeper, [the crook] is going to steal it right out from the back of you.”

Aside from helping to keep trucks secure, other aspects of geofencing also are generating interest, from maintaining efficient routes to alerting fleets to possible accidents.

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