Governmentwide PKI challenges outlined

"Information Security: Advances and Remaining Challenges to Adoption of Public Key Infrastructure Technology"

The high level of electronic transaction security that public-key infrastructure technology can bring to the federal government cannot be fully realized until there is a governmentwide framework to guide agencies consistently, according to the General Accounting Office.

The vision of a federal PKI — using digital certificates to authenticate, authorize and encrypt electronic transactions between agencies and between agencies and citizens — has made substantial progress during the last few years, led by the Federal PKI Steering Committee and the General Services Administration. But there are several challenges still to overcome, including getting the Office of Management and Budget to lend its authority to direct the governmentwide implementation effort, wrote David McClure, director of information technology management issues at GAO.

The challenges outlined by GAO are as follows:

To develop an interoperable governmentwide system, agency PKIs will have to work seamlessly with each other, yet current PKI products and implementations suffer from interoperability problems. Full-featured PKIs are rare, and those that exist are new, so it is unknown how well this technology will truly scale and interoperate. Adoption of the technology may be impeded by the high cost. An effective PKI will require well-defined policies and procedures for ensuring that an appropriate level of security is maintained. Federal agencies will be faced with the challenge of training and involving both users and system administrators in the adoption of a difficult-to-understand technology. The Federal PKI Steering Committee is investigating solutions to many of these issues, and has already developed the Federal Bridge Certification Authority, which allows the many agency PKI applications to connect in a larger network. But the steering committee "does not have the authority to define or require adherence to a governmentwide management framework," McClure wrote.

The report, requested by Rep. Stephen Horn (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Government Reform Subcommittee on Government Efficiency, Financial Management and Intergovernmental Relations, recommends that the steering committee and GSA continue their efforts. But the only way to ensure such authority is to have OMB establish such a framework, working with the steering committee, the Chief Information Officers Council, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and others, the report states.

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