Top trends in customs security

Port authorities, customs, border security face ever increasing volumes of traffic. The correct solutions are essential to provide efficient and non-intrusive inspections. The new digital technologies today not only come with advanced detection capabilities, but also create higher throughput and maintain a system without the need for large numbers of security personnel. So, what are the new trends that will influence the outlook of ports and borders security?

Accelerating digitization for streamlined processes

Ports are increasingly implementing innovations across the entire value chain from the (un)loading to storage to industrial processing. They are turning to a wide range of technologies including big data analytics, predictive maintenance, artificial intelligence (AI) and even smart energy management. [1]

Besides increasing operational efficiency like streamlining clearances or preventing congestions, the pandemic has evidenced a key benefit of digitizing maritime and landside operations: meeting the urgent needs to minimize human interaction and enhance the resilience of supply chains against future crises.

“Inefficiencies in the maritime sector result in delays and higher logistics costs, with an adverse impact on the entire economy. Digitization gives us a unique chance to address this issue”, noted Makhtar Diop, World Bank Vice President for Infrastructure. [2]

Singapore is an example of a country taking strides in digitalizing ports. The government recently passed a new bill allowing electronic bills instead of using physical cross-border trade documents which can run up to hundreds of pages for a single transaction. [3] The Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA) even developed an application to document clearances across multiple agencies into a single application by consolidating 16 separate forms allowing the industry to save up to 100,000 man-hours per year. [4]

And in terms of processes like screening, technologies like Augmented X-ray technology and automated Artificial Intelligence detection will increase efficiency of ports and border operations with faster analysis and higher probability of detection. The French Customs, for one, is able to scan a truck and ascertain whether it holds any contrabands for boosted efficiency, reduced costs and heightened safety. 

Saving time and cost with greater collaboration

As trade routes expand and diversify, cargo traffic increases, and such the number of screening systems, tracking devices and sensors to collect data ,the amount of data to manage will similarly balloon. More than just a place to dock ships or cross customs, ports and borders require transformed maritime and landside logistics to capture, harvest and share data in more collaborative ways in real time.

This now translates into having interconnected information systems, Open Architecture solutions handling UFF X-ray image files, aggregating various data etc., that help transportation partners plan for the arrival of the containers or collecting and sharing traffic data across the port’s agents to save time and money.

In areas like Ghana’s Port of Tema, streamlining screening processes is vital. The port handles more than 90 percent of the country’s container traffic but it is set to treble following its expansion[5]. With Dataset Management System (DMS) deployed in 2019, they are able to pool data from local customs and each connected screening unit and pass it through such central system for image processing. This allows the Port of Tema to operates with 100% scanning of the import and export container traffic. It even streamlined human resource, relying on only 20 remote image operators to view and analyse all cargo data at two central locations.

There is still room for further improved connectivity and collaboration. For instance, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) has made it mandatory for all its member countries to exchange key data electronically (the FAL convention). But a recent survey by the International Association of Ports and Harbors (IAPH) reveals that only a third of over 100 responding ports comply with that requirement[6]. The main barriers to digitalize cited by the ports were the legal framework in their countries or regions and persuading the multiple private-public stakeholders to collaborate, not necessarily the technology[7].

Keeping up with cyber threats

While collaboration is ideal, the growth in network connectivity with growing data exposes more and more organisations to potential unauthorised access. Data at ports can include goods screening and decision making, data exchange across IT systems and ports, or even substance analysis of potential threats. Tampering or altering such information can potentially damage revenue, reputation or, worse, public economy and safety.

Threats can take many forms - internal, external, deliberate, or unintentional. Its multifaceted nature makes taking a holistic approach across people, processes, and technology vital.

In the area of technological solutions, port and border authorities would want to make sure that cybersecurity is embedded within the technology’s design and that they work with certified trusted suppliers. Cyber threats are one of the fastest evolving threats and securing   ports and borders will require flexible, ever developing solutions.

Crunching down on sustainability

Efforts to reduce the carbon footprint of the global transport of goods and improve the environmental performance of our ports are high on the international agenda. In the maritime sector, a global transition to a cleaner and greener industry is underway—especially pertinent since maritime transport alone carries over 90% of global merchandise trade, totalling some 11 billion tons of cargo per year[8].

Increased international maritime environmental regulations for Sulphur emissions, greenhouse gas emissions, and marine organisms and ship recycling will affect the industry[9]

Meanwhile, the concurrent shift to rail freight transport from road motivated in part by the former’s lower greenhouse gas emissions will also demand quicker digitalization of rail ports, for example using 100% train scanning that further facilitates the trade of good and increases enforcement capabilities.

Moving forward, pressure from society is likely to grow, as younger generations directly feel the impacts of climate change. And in the upcoming years, society will demand changes from industries towards a more sustainable future.


Ultimately, “digitalization is not just a matter of technology but, more importantly, of change management, data collaboration, and political commitment”, as IAPH Managing Director of Policy and Strategy, Dr Patrick Verhoeven says[10].

Pressure to keep up with our growing supply chains will only increase. But keeping on our toes and deploying a holistic approach to improving processes, operations, technology and mindset will create a more resilient ports and border industry.