Solving the password challenge

Federal directives on electronic credentials could be the springboard to boost widespread use of smart cards governmentwide as agency officials issue them for access to buildings and networked resources.

Proponents of smart cards in the federal government got a boost from Homeland Security Presidential Directive 12, issued in August. It requires agency officials to provide all employees and contractors with a tamperresistant credential that can be electronically authenticated in the coming months. Although smart cards are not explicitly named in the directive, many industry observers believe smart cards will be the most secure, cost-efficient way to meet the directive's requirements.

"The homeland security presidential directive is a validation of the work that we've been doing for the last year or so," said Judith Spencer, chairwoman of the General Services Administration's Federal Identity Credentialing Committee. "It does give some legs to the work we have been doing. For those agencies that have been hanging back a little bit, it is a new incentive to start participating."

Smart card vendors, meanwhile, are adding scalability and management features and functionality to their wares in anticipation of more governmentwide smart card deployments.

Federal officials initially used smart cards, which are credit card-size plastic cards containing an embedded computer chip, as electronic badges for employees to gain access to buildings. The face of the card can have photos and identifying data that an electronic reader can verify. For access to computers and networks, smart cards can replace or augment personal identification numbers and passwords, which can be lost or otherwise compromised. The cards also can house a digital certificate or a biometric identifier such as a fingerprint.

A smart card system is made up of the cards and a reader. A connection is made when the reader contacts a small area on the front of the card. Readers serve as a path for applications to send and receive commands from the cards. For applications in which it is not practical to have every user touch a reader — such as clearing many people through a building at once — contactless smart cards can communicate with the host system via an antenna. Users only have to wave the card close to a wireless receiver. Middleware software is also often required to enable the applications to work with smart cards.

Large-scale deployment

Officials at ActivCard Inc., which lists the Defense and Interior departments among its customers, are adding single sign-on and logistics management functionality to their offering so the technology can support future smart card deployments. Greg Dicks, ActivCard's vice president of government systems, said programs like one at the Department of Veterans Affairs, which involves providing cards to as many as 500,000 employees and 20 million constituents, will change the face of the federal smart card landscape.

"In the early days of credentialing and badging, everyone was doing a pilot," Dicks said. "That jig is up. We're going to do tens of thousands ...and ultimately millions. The logistics of handling the card are huge."

ActivCard officials recently announced that they would give developers open administrative access to the company's suite of Smart Card ID Applets, a move designed to ease application integration with the cards while supporting mass distribution, Dicks said. Additionally, officials have added a logistics portal and user maintenance features to the system.

"You've got to manage that card from the time it is ordered to the time you decide it's dead," Dicks said. "Those are critical elements associated with scalability. ... The more we use the card and the more applications it touches, the higher the need will be for updates to the information supporting those cards."

Many officials are eager to link support for physical and network access on a single card. They also want to maximize the savings of supporting a single back-end identity management system, which replaces multiple systems supporting physical and network access and presents users with a single security passport for all interaction with the agency's enterprise, said Chris Meaney, director of secure networks at Siemens AG's Information and Communications Networks Division.

When users don't have to remember dozens of passwords, help-desk administrators' burden is eased because they won't have to spend time looking up forgotten passwords, Meaney added.

However, many agencies have multiple access systems not connected to one another or to networked systems, he said. Siemens offers a portfolio of identity and access management products that help agency officials link the systems to a centrally controlled database that can be automatically updated from back-end systems.

The combination of physical and network access in one card is essential for officials to make a business case for using smart cards, said Neville Pattinson, director of business development, technology and government affairs at vendor Axalto. DOD

officials ordered 800,000 cards from Axalto last month to expand the agency's Common Access Card program, which uses smart cards for physical and network access for employees and contractors.

"We expect there will be many other federal agencies and now some of the state agencies that will start to ramp up smart card initiatives, and we are going to see this trend trickle down to the local level," said Randy Vanderhoof, executive director of the Smart Card Alliance. "Agencies have to get the funding together and change their priorities and put the people and the dollars behind the upgrades necessary to support the [recent presidential] directive. In the future, it will be common that smart card technology will be the way for people to identify themselves." l

Havenstein is a freelance writer based in Cary, N.C.

Leaping into deployment

Agency officials considering a smart card project should apply the best practices and lessons learned from pioneer smart card projects launched at the Defense Department and other agencies, said Judith Spencer, chairwoman of the General Services Administration's Federal Identity Credentialing Committee. Agency officials can get involved with the committee or attend meetings of the federal Smart Card Interagency Advisory Board.

"It behooves agencies to get involved in the committee work. The resources are there, and this is one area where working together and collaborating can give levels of effectiveness and efficiencies to agencies across the board," Spencer said.

Once officials decide to take the leap into the smart card arena, one of the most important tasks will be carefully defining what applications will go on a card to ensure that the card will not have to be reissued, industry observers said.

"Once you start to issue in a large enterprise, changing cards becomes problematic," said Chris Meaney, director of secure networks at Siemens AG's Information and Communications Networks Division. "You want to get a useful life out of the card in the three- to four-year range. You need to forecast what your apps are going to be, and then you need to draw hard lines around that."

In addition, unlike many other information technology projects, printers play a crucial role in smart card programs, Meaney added. When selecting a device to use for printing smart cards, agency officials must consider the card's technologies and the functions that must be performed.

For example, in projects in which smart chips, antennas and magnetic stripes are combined, the slight imperfections on the cards where the chip and the antenna reside can render many card printers ineffective and result in smudges and discoloration, Meaney said. Officials must determine if they will be printing on both sides of the card and whether they will be printing a hologram or encoding a magnetic stripe.

"Assuming the badging station software supports the function, it is possible to combine multiple steps into the printing process by including additional functions in the printer such as batch card feeders or magnetic stripe encoders," Meaney said. "This can result in significant time savings per card that multiply as the number of cards increase."

— Heather H. Havenstein

FCW in Print

In the latest issue: Looking back on three decades of big stories in federal IT.


  • Anne Rung -- Commerce Department Photo

    Exit interview with Anne Rung

    The government's departing top acquisition official said she leaves behind a solid foundation on which to build more effective and efficient federal IT.

  • Charles Phalen

    Administration appoints first head of NBIB

    The National Background Investigations Bureau announced the appointment of its first director as the agency prepares to take over processing government background checks.

  • Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.)

    Senator: Rigid hiring process pushes millennials from federal work

    Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) said agencies are missing out on younger workers because of the government's rigidity, particularly its protracted hiring process.

  • FCW @ 30 GPS

    FCW @ 30

    Since 1987, FCW has covered it all -- the major contracts, the disruptive technologies, the picayune scandals and the many, many people who make federal IT function. Here's a look back at six of the most significant stories.

  • Shutterstock image.

    A 'minibus' appropriations package could be in the cards

    A short-term funding bill is expected by Sept. 30 to keep the federal government operating through early December, but after that the options get more complicated.

  • Defense Secretary Ash Carter speaks at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco

    DOD launches new tech hub in Austin

    The DOD is opening a new Defense Innovation Unit Experimental office in Austin, Texas, while Congress debates legislation that could defund DIUx.

Reader comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above

More from 1105 Public Sector Media Group