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Confidentiality of Proprietary Import/Export Data

August 15, 2013

U.S. Customs laws and regulations require that vessel operators in the import/export trades keep manifests that accurately identify all cargo laden aboard.  Vessel manifests provide a wealth of information about a shipper's business, including a description of the goods, the names of suppliers, consignees, importers, piece count, and weight.  Many importers and exporters assume that this information is confidential.  However, it is freely available to anyone unless confidentiality is expressly granted by U.S. Customs and Border Protection ("CBP").

The data available to the public for ocean import shipments consist of the following twenty-two elements:*

1.  Shipper name
9. Weight 16. Voyage number
2. Shipper address 10. Weight unit 17. District/port of unlading
3. Consignee name 11. Container Number 18. Estimated arrival date
4. Consignee address 12. Seal number 19. Bill of lading number
5. Importer name 13. Carrier Code 20. Foreign port of lading
6. Importer address 14. Vessel country 21. Manifest quantity
7. Description of goods 15. Vessel name 22. Manifest units
8. Piece count    

In recent years, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of companies that provide import and export vessel manifest information.  Companies such as PIERS, Import Genius, Panjiva, Zepol, and Datamyne provide this information in a variety of formats and offer sophisticated search options for capturing company-specific data.  For example, searches can be done by company name, address, commodity name, Customs tariff classification, consignee, and port of entry.  These companies can provide the names and addresses of foreign suppliers, U.S. customers, and the products and quantities involved.  They can even supply the names of other U.S. importers who purchase from the same foreign vendors.  For a few hundred dollars, a company can obtain this information about its competitors' import/export transactions.

Requests for manifest confidentiality may be submitted to Customs and, if granted, exempt from disclosure the most sensitive manifest data, including names and addresses of shippers, factories, consignees, and notify parties.  Confidentiality certifications are valid for two years and must be renewed prior to their expiration.

We regularly manage the confidentiality process for importers and exporters.  If you are an importer or exporter and have not already been granted confidentiality, we can provide you with eye-opening data on your import/export transactions that you may have assumed were confidential.  Conversely, we can show you how to obtain manifest information of this kind on your competitors' shipments  and the shipments of other importers and exporters.

Vessel manifest data can be used for a variety of purposes, including gathering the volume of imports in patent infringement cases, identifying sources of supply, identifying Customs ports of entry for suspected piratical merchandise, etc.  In one instance, manifest information was used to establish that a purportedly defunct company was in fact engaged in a thriving import/export trade.

If you would like additional information on protecting your proprietary import/export data or how to obtain proprietary data on competitors , please contact Tom O'Donnell at (312) 985-5570, John Donohue at (215) 640-8528, or Lara Austrins at (312) 985-5571.

*Information for air, truck and rail shipments is not currently available.

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