Digital signature deal targets students

The General Services Administration's ACES site

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Four federal agencies have tapped VeriSign Inc. and AT&T to support the use of digital certificates by students who make transactions online with the government.

Under a task order awarded through the General Services Administration's Access Certificates for Electronic Services (ACES) contract, VeriSign will provide public-key infrastructure consulting and application support for several student-related services available online.

The PKI-enabled services include the Education Department's Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), as well as transactions with the U.S. Postal Service and the departments of Veterans Affairs and Labor.

Students currently must use a personal identification number when filling out FAFSA forms at the Education Department's Web site, but a PIN can be easily forgotten, especially if — as is the case with FAFSA — it's typically used only once a year, said Andy Boots, champion for information security and privacy at the department's Office of Student Financial Assistance Programs.

Digital certificates issued according to ACES guidelines will enable students to fill out FAFSA forms without needing to keep track of PINs and will make conducting business with a variety of federal agencies easier, he said.

"Our vision is enabling students to do business with the federal government," Boots said.

Education officials expect the use of digital certificates to grow as the public becomes more familiar with PKI and its benefits, and Boots said this task order will keep the agency ahead of the curve.

FAFSA forms for the 2001-02 academic year will go online in January, and they may be able to accept digital certificates at that time, he said. If not, they should be ready by spring, he said.

Other online services important to students that will be equipped to handle digital certificates include USPS' change-of-address form and the VA's Web Automated Verification of Enrollment system, which students receiving VA education funding use to let the agency know they're still taking classes. Students can find these services on the Access America for Students Web site (www.students.gov).

VeriSign will validate students' digital certificates in real time using ACES' Certificate Arbitration Module, which was developed by AT&T. VeriSign also will issue the certificates, provide renewal and revocation services, and support overall PKI implementation.

AT&T is one of three prime contract-holders under ACES, which GSA launched to provide the technology and services needed for agencies to develop PKI.

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