San Francisco Chronicle October 31, 2005
Sandia software could help border security
Program is designed to protect points of entry against attacks
By Benjamin Pimentel
Protecting the nation's seaports is one of the government's toughest challenges in the post-9/11 era. The main question: How do you check containers arriving at U.S. ports without causing serious delays that can wreak havoc on commerce?
Sandia National Laboratories has developed software that could help agency decision-makers deal with this problem, as well as other security concerns at different ports of entry, including airports and border checkpoints.
The experimental software, dubbed "Borders Grand Challenge," simulates the movement of goods, vehicles and people through different ports of entry, including airports and seaports.
It provides an interactive analysis of how efforts to address potential terrorist threats -- particularly the smuggling of weapons and known terror suspects -- can disrupt the flow of commerce.
The $6 million program, which Sandia began shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, hopes to give policymakers, particularly at the Department of Homeland Security, a critical tool in formulating security systems that deter terrorism without impeding commerce.
It also gives policymakers a way to find out which technologies to employ for specific security concerns and the best way to implement them.
"There is a cost-benefit trade-off associated with any technology that might be used in border security," said Carolyn Pura, Sandia's program deputy for borders and transportation security in the lab's homeland security unit, in a statement.
Project manager Dan Horschel, based at Sandia's facility in Albuquerque, added: "You can't run an experiment on a port of entry. ... It can affect our entire economy. ... If you do use a technology, where is the best place to put it? Sometimes these help you. Sometimes they hinder you."
The Sept. 11 attacks led to heightened demand for security at U.S. ports and borders. But it also highlighted a key problem: More secure borders could also mean bottlenecks at airports and seaports.
During a presentation at Sandia's Livermore facility, Andrew Vaughn, an engineer on the Sandia team that developed the program, pointed to a line of trucks next to a cargo ship in an animation demonstrating the software.
"The containers are coming off the ships, and they are going through sensors," Vaughn said. "You can already see the backup, and that's bad news for any port. Seconds of delay can cause a huge economic impact."
Installing more sophisticated sensors to detect radioactive materials or hazardous chemicals could help foil the smuggling of weapons of mass destruction and other contraband into the country.
But it could also slow down the flow of commerce, potentially hurting the U.S. economy, which relies on rapid movement of goods to and from other countries through ports and borders.
The Sandia simulation program is designed to help policymakers find a balance.
"We essentially provide options, and policymakers can decide what to do with that information," said Robert Hillaire, a technical investigator on the program.
For example, Sandia tested the simulation program on a Pacific Northwest port. The companies that import goods through the port represent about $50 billion in sales, said spokesman Mike Janes.
Sandia's software found that increasing the average travel time of imported goods by 10 percent could lead to a jump in overall operating costs for the affected businesses and eventually lead to a sales decline of up to $500 million.
Horschel said authorities in charge of a U.S. seaport could use the software to figure out the "threshold" at which specific security measures or policy "would change supplier and consumer behavior."
The program can also be used to analyze security systems at airports or pedestrian border crossings. It can help authorities decide the best way to deploy personnel and even to plan the layout of a border checkpoint.
In the demonstration, a red spot signifying a potential threat shows up, setting off a series of reactions from security personnel, who mobilize to arrest the suspect.
After being given the option of changing a number of variables under different scenarios, authorities can decide how best to respond.
The program builds on Sandia's past work in threat-analysis technology, including its Weapons of Mass Destruction Decision Analysis Center, which also offers scenarios for training public officials how to react in terrorist attacks and other emergencies.
The new system has yet to be fully deployed, Janes said. Sandia has been demonstrating the software to federal officials, especially at the Department of Homeland Security, he added.
Marilyn Sandifur, a spokeswoman for the Port of Oakland, one of the busiest on the West Coast, said she has not seen a demonstration of the program, but she affirmed the need to balance security concerns and the flow of traffic at the port.
Earlier this year, she said, the Port of Oakland began operating new radiation scanning portals to check containers coming out of the facility.
"You want to balance your measures so you can keep your goods moving and provide adequate protection," she said.
The new radiation portals have not slowed down traffic, she added.
John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a security think-tank, said the software seeks to address a major problem: the porous nature of U.S. borders.
"It is a good way of organizing your thinking," he said. But "as long as we have big holes in the border, they will not probably be able to close the borders against evildoers and the stuff they'd like to get into the country."
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