DHS to launch smart card pilot

The Homeland Security Department intends to issue a common smart card for its 180,000 employees beginning next year, piggybacking on a government program to issue identification cards to millions of transportation workers.

In a pilot project the agency plans to launch this summer, DHS officials will give 300 federal workers smart cards that will give the employees access to buildings and facilities as well as authentication for computer systems, said Lee Holcomb, chief technology officer at DHS.

Until now, employees for the 22 agencies that were folded into DHS in March brought their own identification cards with them. In many cases, they were not interoperable and did not have complete identifying markers or authorization identification.

But Holcomb told Federal Computer Week in an interview last month that officials want a standard ID card across the new department. "You can get in [to a building] if your chip works," he said. "It will provide physical access, a picture ID as well as cyber access."

DHS officials plan to tap into the smart card program launched by the Transportation Security Administration, known as the Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC). Officials also plan to ask at least three vendors to provide solutions for the smart cards.

In April, TSA awarded a $3.8 million contract to Maximus Inc. to help develop a universal smart card for transportation workers. Eventually, 12 million transportation workers, such as baggage handlers and security screeners, would use the cards to gain access to secure areas at transit sites. Holcomb said DHS is considering merging what it needs into the TWIC card program.

DHS also has 100,000 digital certificates it inherited when it combined the 22 agencies. The certificates provide access to computer networks. Holcomb said the department is in the process of building a DHS infrastructure for certificates that would be accessible to all employees.

But the smart card project is a long-term program for DHS, according to Joseph Broghamer, DHS director of identity and credentialing. The cards will contain microchips with security information and a photograph of the employee, he said. Although the cards will not immediately contain a biometric identifier, Broghamer said DHS will have the option to add a biometric identifier to the cards, most likely fingerprints.

The department will be able to cancel any card at any time from a central location if it is lost or stolen. Specific security identifiers will also make it impossible to forge a card, Broghamer said.

Issuing smart cards is only one of the ways DHS is dealing with internal security, Holcomb said. In addition, the department is working with the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the Defense Department and the General Services Administration to develop standards for the cards that are being introduced into the federal government.

Randy Vanderhoof, executive director of the nonprofit Smart Card Alliance Inc., said DHS has studied DOD's smart cards, which the agency has issued to 2.5 million people — the largest implementation of smart cards to date in the United States for physical and computer access. "Many of the major challenges in implementing a large-scale PKI have been addressed as well as the best practices," he said.

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