The highly touted purchase of three huge Chinese cargo cranes by Massport has turned into a security headache as defense officials are now worried they could be used for spying on U.S. shipping operations.
The 205-foot tall cranes at Conley Terminal, made by ZPMC, which is owned by the communist government, have been identified as a potential security risk by the Pentagon, according to reports.
Officials are concerned the Chinese government could be using the software and sensors on the cranes — bought by ports across the U.S. — to track shipments, including those that support military operations.
Defense officials have reportedly compared the cranes to “Trojan horses” because of their spying capability. China could also attempt to disrupt shipping operations.
The new worries come amid increased tensions between the U.S. and China, highlighted by the shooting down of a Chinese spying balloon last month.
The cranes were bought by major ports in the U.S. and Massport officials are now aware of the possible security risk.
“We are aware of the concerns regarding ZPMC,” Massport spokesperson Jennifer Mehigan said in a statement to the Herald. “They are the only manufacturer in the world capable of building our specialized low-profile cranes. We have engaged with federal and industry partners on this and continue ongoing dialogue.”
Massport put out a glowing press release about the multi-million dollar purchase of the three low-profile “Neo-Panamax” cranes from ZPMC in July 2021, saying it would enable Boston’s port to handle larger ships and provide “New England importers and exporters greater access and connectivity to the global marketplace.”
Built in Shanghai, two of the cranes are 205 feet tall and have a lifting height of 160 feet, reaching 22 container rows wide. The other crane is 145 feet tall because it’s closer to the Logan Airport flight path.
“Larger cranes are needed due to the shipping industry’s shift toward larger vessels that hold more containers,” Massport said.
The Port of Virginia announced in January the purchase of five ZPMC cranes at a cost of more than $61 million.
The concerns about the ZPMC cranes highlight the U.S.’s growing reliance on Chinese-manufactured products and high-tech equipment.
The MBTA has a contract with Chinese manufacturer CRRC to deliver more than 400 Orange and Red Line cars, but the contract has been plagued by delays and manufacturing defects. The 2014 contract was made under former Gov. Deval Patrick but is now being reviewed by new Gov. Maura Healey’s administration.
Healey has said her administration is “going to be all over” the procurement of the Chinese-built train cars because of the company’s failure to meet the terms of its contract.
The Chinese embassy in Washington and Chinese Foreign Ministry called the concerns about the ZPMC cranes “paranoia driven” and said the reports are “misleading to the American public.”
The potential security threats from the cranes was first reported by the Wall Street Journal, citing Pentagon sources, but a port trade group is downplaying the story.
“There have been no known security breaches as a result of any cranes at U.S. ports, despite alarmist media reports,” the American Association of Port Authorities said. “Further, modern cranes are very fast and sophisticated, but even they can’t track the origin, destination or nature of the cargo.”
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