Getting Smart

Measuring the real strides that smart card technology is making across government can be tricky. Clearly, agency interest in the technology is at an all-time high, focused originally on streamlining e-government applications, but now, following Sept. 11, 2001, also looking to tighten access to government and other facilities.

However, so far just a small portion of this curiosity has translated into pilot tests or actual production systems. The one whale-sized exception, of course, is the Defense Department's Common Access Card program, in which more than 3 million cards have been issued to military personnel and government contractors in the past few years. By all accounts, the turning point for much greater governmentwide deployment is here.

The smart card itself is a relatively simple device. Embedded in its credit card-sized plastic frame is a computer chip that can store data, such as a person's fingerprint, and process data, such as an algorithm that can encrypt an e-mail message or provide a digital signature as proof of identity for an electronic transaction. How to deploy and manage a large-scale smart card program is not so simple, as the stories in this special report show.

In the first story, we compare three high-profile smart card programs as officials come up with answers to the technical, policy and management challenges that smart cards pose. This includes a look at DOD as it plans an upgrade to a second-generation card, the Transportation Security Administration's efforts to launch a decentralized card program supporting some 12 million workers and the Homeland Security Department 's massive project, which like many of DHS' information technology initiatives, is a balancing act supporting many missions.

The report's second story covers the rapidly developing area of contactless smart cards. Because they don't require users to swipe cards on readers, they are suited for moving authorized people quickly through secure areas — a new priority for many agencies.

We'll also look at what's new with the General Services Administration's smart card contract and its critical role. More than just the volume-price purchasing vehicle for several agency smart card programs, the contract is the primary mechanism for promoting a basic level of cross-agency card standardization, including an important new effort to tie cards into the federal enterprise architecture.

No doubt much work remains, particularly in the areas of standardization and policy development, yet the basic technology and benefits are well-proven and the groundwork has now been laid.

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