HSPD-12 cards open new worlds

Feds’ smart cards offer multiple ways to securely manage online identities

The government’s new identity credentials will provide better building security once agencies acquire card readers and other information technology infrastructure products. But agencies and security vendors are already thinking of additional uses for the smart card identity credentials that Homeland Security Presidential Directive 12 required agencies to begin issuing Oct. 27.

Security experts who advise federal agencies say the applications for secure identity credentials are nearly limitless, and the secret to their versatility is in the cards.

Each HSPD-12 card contains at least four digital public-key infrastructure certificates. Agencies can use one PKI certificate for secure building access and another for log-on access to computer systems at federal offices. That leaves two additional certificates. One is a signature key that contains the identity of the card owner. The other is a cryptographic key — RSA, Data Encryption Standard or Advanced Encryption Standard — that controls access to the signature key.

Tom Greco, vice president of enabling infrastructures at Cybertrust, said the most important element of the HSPD-12 credential is the certificate-on-a-chip that identifies the card owner.

“The private key is generated on the card itself and never leaves the possession of the cardholder,” he said. The location of that private key means that “the only person who could have applied that binding function was the authorized cardholder.”

Digitally signed documents
Because of the card’s security and trustworthiness, federal employees and contractors can use it for logging on to secure Web sites and classified portals that require user identification and validation, Greco said.

With their HSPD-12 smart cards, users can digitally sign electronic documents, including e-mail messages. Some software companies have started integrating digital signatures into their e-mail software.

“You’ve got a certificate on the toolbar, and there’s the ability to bind the e-mail and encrypt it as well,” Greco said.

Secure SOA
Benjamin Brink, assistant public printer for security and intelligent documents at the Government Printing Office, said people can sign and access any digital document using the HSPD-12 cards. A document that has a unique digital hash can then be linked to the unique identifier on someone’s card.

He said GPO has started a test program to issue PKI certificates to people who then submit their agencies’ publications to GPO electronically instead of manually.

In addition, HSPD-12 cards could be useful in developing service-oriented architectures, said Tom Clarke, vice president of research and technology in the Office of Justice Programs at the Justice Department. One of the biggest barriers to implementing SOA is managing online identities. An interoperable, shared-services architecture that includes all of an agency’s systems poses a major security risk if the systems can’t securely identify users.

Private, secure identification mechanisms are necessary to make SOA systems behave nicely, Clarke said, and HSPD-12 smart cards could solve that problem.

Smart uses for smart cardsTo comply with Homeland Security Presidential Directive 12, agency identification cards must incorporate electronic chips that contain users’ identity and biometric data plus encryption to protect that data.

Due to the signature and encryption certificates on the cards, they can be used in a variety of ways, including:

  • Controlling physical access to buildings and secure areas, such as first responder perimeters during emergencies.

  • Managing logical access to computer systems to ensure identification of cardholders across networks and the Internet.

  • Digitally signing e-mail messages, which can sidestep spam and prioritize secure information.

  • Enabling secure signing and access to encrypted documents, such as human resources forms or travel expense reports.

— Wade-Hahn Chan

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