GSA readies all-in-one smart card

During the next two months, 450 General Services Administration employees will have their government identification cards and credit cards replaced with a single smart card they can use to gain access to office buildings, log on to computers and purchase airline tickets, among other applications.

The project is the first in North America to use smart cards based on the Java operating system platform and is the first to use a bank - in this case, Citibank - to issue cards that mix government and commercial applications, according to government and industry officials involved in the project.

"We want to provide a model for the whole government on this," said Bill Holcombe, the director of card technology at GSA and the leader of the project.

Agencies have been experimenting with smart cards for more than a decade but have never adopted them widely. Early tests showed that it is more cost-effective to have the cards perform more than one function, but programming constraints had made it impractical to mix applications from several vendors or have cards managed by different offices.

GSA hopes to demonstrate that the new Java Cards, which have been available for about a year, are flexible enough to support a variety of applications at once. "Just having the bank be at the front end of the issuance [is important]" because agencies would no longer have to buy, format and issue cards themselves, said Anthony Cieri, who runs the Navy's smart card program.

The project will start next month with 50 employees at GSA's Washington, D.C., headquarters, including GSA Administrator David Barram. In June, when the Federal Technology Service moves into a new Fairfax, Va., office building, all 400 employees there will be issued cards.

GSA is loading the cards, provided by Siemens Microelectronics Inc., with a mix of time-honored and cutting-edge technology. One side will be a traditional Visa card, issued by Citibank under its card services contract with the government. This side of the card will have a magnetic stripe for swiping during credit card purchases. The other side will contain a chip running a new version of the Java Card operating system developed by IBM Corp.

Among other applications, employees will use the cards to enter office buildings by waving their cards at a reader. When they log onto their computers, a fingerprint reader on their keyboards will compare their fingerprint to one stored on their cards, and they will use digital signatures programmed on the cards to sign e-mail.

"We really saw the GSA project as an opportunity to demonstrate in a field environment a concept we feel is really coming to fruition in the marketplace," said Bruce Caswell, worldwide sales manager for pervasive computing with IBM.

Most of these applications have been tried separately, so officials are confident in their performance. What is not so certain is the best way to manage the cards and whether employees will like using them.

"If a GSA employee is no longer entitled to the financial services on the card, what happens?" said Mike Orr, director of business development with 3-G International Inc., an integrator that supplied the building entry and computer security applications for the cards. "There are processes in place, but we're going to look at how they really work. [And] how do card holders like having their credit card as the key to their PC? Does that make sense psychologically to the card holder?"

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