NIST issues standard for authentication

The National Institute of Standards and Technology last month published a new federal standard for authentication technology that is designed to extend agencies' use of digital signatures.

The new Federal Information Processing Standard (FIPS) 196 titled "Entity Authentication Using Public Key Cryptography " provides technical specifications for hardware and software that agency users would use to identify themselves to host servers and to verify the identity of persons connecting to those servers. The standard is essential to promoting the use of electronic commerce by insulating transactions from fraud and tampering.

The standard is another step in developing a government public-key infrastructure - the framework of law and procedures needed for the widespread use of so-called digital signatures which authenticate electronic transactions much as hand-written signatures authenticate paper transactions. The signature also verifies that the message has not been altered during the transmission.

The new standard provides agencies that want to purchase authentication technology based upon public-key methods a procurement road map to follow said John Pescatore research director for the Information Systems Security Research and Advisory Service of Trusted Information Systems Inc. (TIS) . To date agencies have had to do independent research when purchasing authentication products.

The platform- and application-independent standard would allow agency users including remote users to dispense with using passwords and personal identification numbers (PINs) to verify their identity said Jim Foti primary author of the NIST standard. Foti said the standard will extend the current uses of digital signature technology from electronic mail and electronic fund transfers to two-way authentication between users and hosts.

"A lot of agencies we've worked with have indicated that they need better authentication technology for use with their systems " Foti said. "Now people are complaining about the security provided by passwords. Instead of forcing someone to use a good password scheme this uses public-key cryptography to authenticate yourself to a different machine."

With the use of entity authentication technology networking applications that require remote log-in will be able to authenticate clients who have not previously registered with the host because secret material such as a password does not have to be exchanged in advance.

Also point-to-point authentication can take place between users who do not know each other. When sending a file to a server instead of using a password or PIN a user's identity would be authenticated through the use of a private key located on a smart card or floppy disk.

NIST has worked with the National Security Agency to help NSA integrate FIPS-compliant technology into Fortezza cards that would allow Defense Message System users to verify the identity of one another for secure e-mail transmissions. Other applications include those that require the government to verify the identity of a user before providing confidential information such as Social Security benefits or Internal Revenue Service tax information.

The General Services Administration's Federal Security Infrastructure Program (FSIP) last month began a year-long test of an encryption project that will use authentication to allow users to conduct secure transactions with the government from public buildings or kiosks. Six government agencies are participants in the test.

Stanley Choffrey program manager for FSIP said he had not seen the technical specifications of the new FIPS so he did not know if the technology being used in the test complied with the standard. He added that authentication is critical to agencies that want to transmit information to external users.

"There is a big push for public-key infrastructure technology " Choffrey said. "The best way to use it with the software that's out there is authenticating yourself to servers. It's important when you talk about citizen interaction with the federal government that the federal government knows who the individual is that it's interacting with."

The U.S. Postal Service has partnered with Cylink Corp. Sunnyvale Calif. to build an electronic commerce system that will authenticate identities for secure electronic transactions. Cylink's SecureAccess authentication product already has been certified as complying with the FIPS standard said John Marbhioni Cylink's manager of business development. Cylink's other clients include the Army the IRS the Justice Department and the Federal Aviation Administration.

"We're encouraged to see this coming out of the government " Marbhioni said. "This helps Postal enforce the security that's required for their different service levels. It allows more vendors in the industry to align with a way to do entity authentication that can be trusted. It removes one question in deploying a product that uses public-key cryptography and strong authentication for remote access.

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