The allure of keyless entry
Establishing proof of identity to conduct business online today is a much different security challenge than it was in the mid-1990s.
Back then, for example, the only way Treasury Department officials could entice financial institutions to place their orders for government securities online was to use digital certificates and an elaborate public-key infrastructure for securing the transactions.
Online buyers were scared, said Keith Rake, assistant commissioner of the Office of Public Debt Accounting in Treasury's Bureau of the Public Debt.
But now, Rake said, digital certificates are a deterrent to buyers of state and local government securities rather than an incentive. A new generation of buyers dislikes the hassle of downloading digital certificates before submitting orders electronically, he added. A new policy to be adopted later this year by the bureau will permit buyers to bypass PKI and instead use personal identification numbers and passwords to identify themselves online.
Using PINs and passwords to identify buyers who want to lock in orders at specific prices is reasonable and poses no extraordinary risk, Rake said. But it shows how far federal agencies have progressed in thinking about electronic government and managing electronic identity credentials.
All of the pieces for a new approach to the electronic identity problem, or e-authentication, are finally coming together, said William Burr, manager of the security technology group at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which advises federal agencies on electronic security standards. E-authentication means identifying people when they connect to a federal agency server remotely via a network.
To illustrate the problem, Burr has about 20 passwords he is expected to use and periodically change. For him, the measure of e-authentication success can be summed up in four words: "Freedom from 20 passwords."
After conducting many lengthy discussions with experts inside and outside the government, federal security officials have created five critical components for managing electronic identities across the federal government:
An e-authentication policy issued earlier this year by Office of Management and Budget officials.
A new technical document written by security experts at NIST, called Special Publication 800-63. The publication outlines the technical requirements for verifying electronic identities.
A list of federal agencies and companies certified to provide identity credentials for use within the federal government.
A new set of documents, issued in July, that describes a technical architecture that federal agencies will use for managing identity credentials. It is defined by a federated rather than centralized infrastructure and by a protocol known as Security Assertion Markup Language (SAML).
A list of companies whose SAML software products have been tested for interoperability and certified for federal agencies to use to convey identity information.
SAML is crucial. Widespread use of SAML software for managing federal identity credentials will mean federal employees can stop struggling to keep track of more than a dozen passwords, for example, and a half-dozen or more digital certificates.
Several e-government pilots using SAML infrastructures for verifying users' identity credentials are already working. One is a federal Web portal, Grants.gov, where people can apply online for federal grants. Others include eTravel, a portal where federal employees make travel plans and reservations, and Employee Express, where they conduct personnel and payroll transactions online.
After several years spent studying how to manage electronic identities on a large scale, the federal government has emerged as a leader, said Stephen Holden, assistant professor of information systems at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "It may be that the feds end up setting a de facto standard."
More work in other areas, such as knowledge-based authentication and biometrics, however, remains to be done, Burr said.
Knowledge-based authentication systems rely on knowledge that only the person claiming to be that person could know. Biometrics rely on physical attributes to identify people. But even without those options, most agencies now have sufficient tools at hand to expand their participation in e-government, Burr said.
Future work also is needed to extend the e-authentication model to transactions outside the federal government, and some of that work has begun, said John Griffith, director of research and development at Entegrity Solutions Corp., a company that makes application security software.
Members of an organization of government and industry participants, known as the E-Authentication Partnership, will meet next month to begin setting up rules for verifying the online identities of businesses and citizens.
Griffith said the partnership members will try to reach an agreement on common operating and audit procedures for issuing and managing electronic identity credentials over time.
Once such agreements are reached, federal agencies can accept the electronic identity credentials issued by banks or health care providers as proof of a citizen's identity.
That will not happen until there is mutual trust between organizations that issue identity credentials and those that own applications and are asked to accept the credentials, said Daniel Blum, senior vice president and research director at the Burton Group, an information technology research and consulting company. And that work, he said, "is going to take some time."
Other security experts say federal officials should not underestimate the difficulty of making e-authentication work even within the federal government. Federal officials are already "working very hard just to get their arms around whether their computers and networks are secure," said Kenneth Ammon, a former National Security Agency official who now is president of NetSec Inc., a security services company.
Many federal agencies are several steps away from "understanding the information that is going across their networks, being able to place values on that information and then building a credentialing system for that information," Ammon said.
Burr has worked on computer security problems long enough not to expect any easy fixes, especially for the problem of e-authentication.
After hearing about Treasury's policy change for securities orders, Burr expressed reservations. "As an old PKI guy, I kind of wince," he said. "The truth is that PKI has not been as easily implemented or as user-friendly as we would like, but the problem is passwords are not that user-