From Bootleggers To Blockchain: Technology In The Ethical Supply Chain

Diane Pickett

On a recent walk along the shoreline of Lake Ontario, I was reminded of a local legend about a rum runner’s tunnel that connected to the beach from the cellar of a distillery owner’s mansion. The Roaring ’20s saw a great deal of this kind of liquid contraband, transported from local distilleries to boats along the Canadian north shore of Lake Ontario, intended for the thirsty residents of Prohibition-era Rochester, N.Y., and beyond.

While there is a certain Gatsbyesque glamour that sometimes glorifies Prohibition, the bootleggers and rum runners used unsophisticated methods. There was nothing the least bit glamorous (or safe) about running booze across Lake Ontario in the dead of winter, as many lost boats and bodies washed up on the lake’s shores.

The more things change

Fast-forward to our own version of the “roaring ’20s” where smuggling is just as lucrative: drugs, weaponry, high-end automobiles, endangered animals and their parts, and sadly, even people. Today though, smugglers have sophisticated supply chains, enabled by the same technologies legitimate organizations use.

But all that tech creates data, and data leaves a trail. From the early days of barcoding, then RFID tagging, and more recently track-and-trace with blockchain, technology allows us to see the provenance of goods and resources. Customers are now looking for such reassurances. We want to know if the products we consume are counterfeit, made with slave labor, or tampered with in the distribution process.

But we could do more. Tragic cases like the deaths of 39 Vietnamese migrants in a refrigerated truck near London last year highlight the desperate need for greater vigilance. Could the standardization of motion detectors in refrigerated (or any) transport containers help prevent similar deaths? Could it also discourage the practice of transporting human beings like so many head of cattle?

The more things don’t have to stay the same

Smuggling will exist so long as people want what they cannot have by legitimate means or at a price they’re willing to pay. Whether it’s as heartbreaking as the dream of a better life in another country or as laughable as thinking a bit of powdered rhino horn will restore your virility, we humans will find a way.

Fortunately, the same ingenuity builds the tools we need to prevent harm. We design and manufacture smarter products with sensors to track temperature, humidity, tampering, and more. We make smarter vehicles and assets that track movement, unacceptable conditions, or unsanctioned stops or trips. We also use machine learning to detect patterns and anomalies in supply chain data to ferret out fraud and ensure security.

There will always be a give and play between smugglers attempting to break the law and the entities (police, legitimate companies, industry associations, etc.) trying to enforce it. But as the integration of global supply chains continues apace, new developments and technologies could make it much harder for bad actors to succeed. This might just help to change the risk-benefit analysis enough to make a positive change. Hopefully.

To learn more about ensuring an ethical supply chain, download the recent IDC whitepaper “Delivery as a Critical Element of the Digital Supply Chain.”

Diane Pickett

About Diane Pickett

Diane Pickett is a director in the SAP Digital Supply Chain marketing organization at SAP. Responsible for regional engagement, Diane's background includes a wide range of roles in communications, analyst relations, public relations, and marketing.