Customs NL is constantly testing new technologies, working methods and partnerships. The service is currently looking into the possibilities of smart seals for safe container transportation.

Customs NL is always looking for new ways of conducting its supervision task and reducing the inspection burden for trade and industry. For this purpose Customs tests groundbreaking technologies, working methods and partnerships. By way of example, the service is currently looking into the possibilities of smart seals, which could represent a true revolution in the world of logistics and transport.

Electronic seals for containers have already been around for years. They usually take the form of devices placed on the outside of the doors – large and unwieldy, with all sorts of functionalities and therefore rather expensive. But more and more smaller types are now appearing on the market, most of which are attached inside the container, have fewer functionalities and are therefore much less expensive. The relatively low purchase price makes it an attractive option for parties to use these handy models on a large-scale basis for the tracking & tracing of shipments. These smart sensors are expected to mark the beginning of a new trend and an explosion of data on logistics flows. That information will of course be relevant to companies that monitor the quality and safety of their products, but it could be just as important to customs services, assuming that entrepreneurs will be willing to share this information with the authorities. Customs will not itself be investing in the tools.

For some months Dutch Customs has been taking part in an experiment with a supplier of such a smart seal. This supplier has found a number of transport companies willing to test its product. The device is about the same size as a mobile phone and registers the slightest change in temperature and lighting and the time at which it was detected. This shows whether a container has been opened without authorisation on its journey from A to B. As things stand interested parties are only able to find out after the event whether there have been any irregularities during transport because the electronic seal does not have a Wi-Fi connection. Once this step has been taken – which is certainly the intention of the manufacturer – information about the status of the goods in question will be available in realtime.

It is clear that this internet-of-things-type solution could offer big advantages for Customs. For the first time Customs will be able to gain a current and reliable impression of the physical integrity and content of containers on their way to the Netherlands: has contraband been picked up on the way? Examples include a batch of smuggled cigarettes or narcotics, which are often hidden in reefer fruit containers from South America, for example. Based on this valuable knowledge the service will be able to take a much more targeted approach to removing ‘foreign’ goods from the logistics flows. The work will also be made a good deal easier if a computerised system shows precisely which of the 25,000 containers on a ship mooring in the Rotterdam Seaport has been flagged as suspicious.

Not only will the chance of catching criminals who take advantage of legitimate goods flows be increased: the greatly improved information position will also make it possible for Customs to carry out much fewer unnecessary physical checks. The service will be able to tighten up its risk profiles and thus reduce the chance of false positives – containers that are wrongly selected during the check. The decrease in the number of false negatives will also reduce the number of containers that are wrongly able to continue on their way after arriving in the Netherlands. That means that Customs will be able to release goods without inspecting them more confidently in the knowledge that the chance of a ‘bad’ container slipping through the net is extremely small. This will of course be music to the ears of the business community too.

In the new inNovation column we show how Dutch Customs looks ahead to and invests in promising, groundbreaking resources that could help its staff to carry out their work. The key principle operated by the service is that the human factor always comes first: despite the growing importance of technology, it is the Customs officer who ultimately decides and takes responsibility.

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