10 Takeaways from the GPS Cargo Tracking / Monitoring Forum

I had the privilege of attending a forum on the subject of GPS Cargo Tracking sponsored by the Rx-360 Cargo Theft / High Risk Areas Workgroup and the Pharmaceutical Cargo Security Coalition (PCSC) on Wednesday, 3 February.  Hosted by Pfizer at their facility in Collegeville, PA, the event was attended by representatives from the pharmaceutical industry, carriers, security firms, insurance companies and others, participating in person and on-line.  

A number of vendors were invited to present including 7P Solutions,  FreightWatch, LoJack / SC-Integrity,  HiddenTec, OnAsset, RoamBee, ShadowTrack 24×7, TigerSwan, TSS and Ubidata  / Track4C.  It must be noted inclusion as a presenter did not constitute an endorsement from either of the sponsoring organizations, rather, it was an opportunity to educate members as to the services they can provide.

That said, here are a few personal observations, notes, opinions and prognostications:

  1. There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that electronic tracking of cargo by GPS and other means (collectively “GPS”, to keep it simple) together with heightened awareness and the propagation of cargo security best practices has been a deterrent to cargo theft, and invaluable to recovering lost cargos after the fact, often within minutes or a few hours of an occurrence.  This can be seen in cargo theft statistics from the pharmaceutical and electronics industries, early adopters of the technology.(1)
  2. Were any further proof necessary, the number of solution providers from the US and Europe represented at the forum, and the range and increasing sophistication of their offerings, is testimony to the promise and rapid growth of this technology.  
  3. It’s clear the diffusion of GPS Cargo Tracking is moving out of the early adoption phase.  Indicators include commoditization of the technology, the proliferation of solution providers and big companies (e.g., AT&T, Deutsche Telekom) testing the market through strategic partnerships.      
  4. As the technology becomes less costly and more capable it will propagate to other industries – food & beverage, apparel, building materials, etc.  The day will come when palletized / containerized cargo of any type without embedded tracking is the exception rather than the rule.    
  5. Some users choose to self-monitor shipments rather than relying on vendor provided tracking services and control centers.   
  6. Vendors recognize these trends and want to distance themselves from being viewed as mere “widget sellers”.  They’re trying to differentiate offerings with new, value-added applications based on the data “widgets” provide such as analytics, supply chain integration, etc.  Others will choose to simplify the technology and their business models to compete effectively as low-cost providers.  
  7. Despite advances, technical challenges remain including battery life, reliability, transmission and coverage limitations, etc.  In some areas – notably Brazil, Mexico, South Africa and Italy – sophisticated cargo thieves are using electronic jamming to neutralize tracking devices.  Vendors are actively developing countermeasures in efforts to stay ahead of them.    
  8. In areas of the world where law enforcement is weak or non-existent users and service providers are forced to rely on private security firms for protection, investigation and recovery.  Some vendors have established formal and informal business relationships with these firms to provide “boots on the ground” on a regional and country-by-country basis.  
  9. In the PRC government regulation forbids “sending signals out of the country” and shippers can be held liable for violations.  Although GPS is accessible throughout the country some vendors do not provide tracking services there; others may be willing to take the risk of possible impound and fines.   
  10. Though it didn’t come up during the Forum I would be remiss (and Erik will kill me) if I fail to mention that the best way to stop losses from cargo theft is to prevent it from happening in the first place with a multi-layered approach to a secure, end-to-end chain of custody that includes well-defined and enforced protocols, employee training, physical security measures such as the use of tamper-resistant and tamper-evident packaging, air brake locks on trucks and locking bars on trailers, thorough carrier vetting and driver identification, 24 x 7 video surveillance of warehouses, loading docks and gate areas, and the use of secure facilities, lots and drop yards.  And oh yeah – common sense. 

Brad Elrod, Chuck Forsaith and their colleagues at Rx-360, the PCSC and Pfizer did a great job in recognizing the need for this informative day that they put together on short notice and executed with military precision – first class all the way.  Their commitment to promoting dialogue within the security community and advancing the state of the art in cargo security has had a significant impact that’s rarely recognized, and felt far beyond the pharmaceutical industry.   We sincerely thank them.

(1) Although cargo theft statistics are readily available from numerous sources, they are notoriously underreported and incomplete due to  inconsistencies in the data.  I am unaware of any rigorous academic studies that correlate or quantify the contribution of GPS tracking to cargo theft risk mitigation and reduction.  If you know of any, please advise!