DOD, GSA buy into universal smart card

A new mandate that requires the use of a common smart card throughout the Defense Department and an upcoming estimated $1 billion governmentwide solicitation for smart card products and services have set the stage for the federal government to become the largest consumer of smart cards in the world.

Deputy secretary of Defense John Hamre last week released a memorandum that directs DOD components to use a smart card-based "common access card" that will be the standard identification card for military, civilian and contractor employees. Employees also will use the card—which features an embedded computer chip to store data—to gain access to buildings and to the department's computer networks and systems.

"Now is the time to adopt smart cards throughout the department and realize the potential that this technology offers," Hamre wrote in the memo.

DOD also will incorporate the common access card into its public-key infrastructure plans, making it the department's primary platform to hold the digital security "token" that identifies users so that they can take part in secure digital transactions.

DOD's initial use of the card at multiple locations will take place by Dec. 30, 2000, according to the Hamre memo. The Navy will take the lead in preparing a smart card operational requirements document. Meanwhile, the General Services Administration is poised within the next two weeks to release a solicitation for its governmentwide Smart Access Common ID Card procurement, which some vendors have valued at more than $1 billion.

The indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contract will provide common, interoperable multiapplication smart cards and services to agencies. The cards will be used as a government ID card but also will support access to computers and buildings.

The contract represents a first step in addressing two pressing agency concerns, according to GSA: securing networks and buildings and providing the tools to support electronic commerce.

"The Smart Access Common ID Card [solicitation] contains a lot of features agencies have asked for," said Mary Mitchell, deputy associate administrator of GSA's Office of Electronic Commerce. "There is relative agreement with what the requirements are. As a physical token, [smart cards] will provide an increased level of security, which is certainly a top issue across agencies. The nice thing about a physical token is that it will increase the ease of use, which has been a concern."

GSA's contract "will certainly make it easier to obtain card services," said Tony Trenkle, director of electronic services at the Social Security Administration. Still, it will be up to agencies to make a business case for smart cards, he said. "There is still some internal work that needs to be done, but there's certainly some interest in it for security reasons," he said.

Vendors say the GSA contract could kick start both the government and U.S. commercial smart card markets, both of which have been slow to take off. "It changes the smart card industry in that the government becomes the largest consumer of smart cards in the world," said Thomas Burke, vice president of marketing at CyberMark. "The volumes would make the price of smart cards drop."

Over the long term, the program will "help establish a smart card infrastructure and interoperability that will migrate out to the private sector more quickly and efficiently," said Robert Demson, vice president of government solutions at DataCard Corp. "GSA is the first that puts together and creates a platform of interoperability the government can roll out."

Still, there are challenges ahead. True interoperability among vendors' cards, especially in the area of security, is not yet a reality. "What we're doing, the cryptographic world will settle down, but we haven't settled down yet.... My instinct now is to stay flexible and monitor the market with a vengeance," said Joseph Leo, deputy administrator for management at the Agriculture Department. "We want to watch what the big commercial folks are doing because it will have an effect on us."

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