GAO study of RFID technology, policy seen flawed

A recently released Government Accountability Office study of radio frequency identity device security is flawed because it omits discussion of technologies and federal policies in the arena, according to smart-card industry executives.

GAO defended the report, saying it relied on information provided by other federal agencies and did not delve deep into individual RFID programs that the agencies are implementing.

The GAO report, titled Information Security: Radio Frequency Identification Technology in the Federal Government, discusses privacy and security aspects of RFID tags used for inventory control as well as contactless smart cards used to make personnel credentials. GAO issued the report May 27.

The report cites several privacy and security issues that RFID units can pose, such as “tracking an individual’s movements, profiling an individual’s habits, tastes or predilections and allowing for secondary uses of information.” According to GAO, “While measures to mitigate these issues are under discussion, they remain largely prospective.”

But as Patrick Hearn, business development director for Oburthur Card Systems of Chantilly, Va., stated, federal law, regulations and policies mandate many privacy and security protections for the use of smart cards in federal credentialing programs.

“The security measures—encryption and authentication—listed [by GAO as ‘prospective’] all exist today and are incorporated into programs such as the State Department’s e-passport program,” Hearn wrote in an e-mail comment on the GAO report.

Report author Gregory C. Wilshusen, director of information security issues for GAO, rejected Hearn's view that full RFID privacy and security technology already exists. In an e-mail response, he cited the report's statement that some RFID privacy and security methods, such as deactivation mechanisms on tags, blocking technology to disrupt transmissions and an opt-in/opt-out framework for consumers have not been fully developed.

Hearn also cited the existence of the Federal Information Processing Standard 140-2, which applies to contactless smart cards issued to federal employees and contractors, as well as privacy and security rules mandated in the Federal Identity Management Handbook.

Hearn noted that the standards that apply to federal use of contactless smart cards mandate compliance with the Privacy Act of 1974, the e-Government Act of 2002, Office of Management and Budget memorandums relevant to the topic and National Institute of Standards and Technology standards for smart-card security and privacy.

The governmentwide identity credentialing program for federal employees and contractors relies on standards such as the FIPS-201 that covers information security and privacy, among other topics [see GCN story].

Other industry sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, echoed Hearn’s view that the GAO report omitted key information about the security of RFID units used for credentialing purposes in federal programs.

Wilshusen said the document “was a general overview of RFID technology in federal government.” GAO produced the report at the request of four members of the House Homeland Security Committee, including the panel’s chairman, Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Calif.).

Wilshusen said GAO had sent surveys to 23 of the 24 agencies covered by the Chief Financial Officers Act, omitting the Defense Department, from which it already had information. The Pentagon is the largest government user of RFID systems.

As for the federal ID credentialing program, Wilshusen said, “The General Services Administration did not identify that as one of their programs using RFID technology.”

Wilshusen added, “In terms of the actual implementation [of RFID technology] we did not look at applications. It was a broader view of how agencies are using the technologies.”

He also said, “We don’t come out and say this technology is insecure. We say there are security considerations that agencies need to address.”

According to the report, “Several security and privacy issues are associated with federal and commercial use of RFID technology.” The report states that compliance with the Federal Information Security Management Act’s risk-based framework for security assessment “can help agencies achieve a stronger security posture.”

One part of the report states that 11 of the 24 CFO Act agencies responded to the questionnaire by saying they have no plans to adopt RFID technology, notwithstanding that the federal ID credentialing program calls for all agencies to implement the technology.

Sixteen agencies surveyed responded to GAO’s question about the legal issues associated with RFID implementation, and only one identified what it considered to be legal issues, according to the report. “These issues relate to protecting an individual’s right to privacy and tracking sensitive documents and evidence,” the report said.

The General Services Administration carries out key responsibilities related to the federal employee-credentialing program. A GSA spokeswoman declined to comment on the GAO report, stating in an e-mail response that “GAO would be the only agency that could respond to questions about the scope of its studies.” The spokeswoman also referred inquiries about federal smart-card security to NIST.

(Posted May 31, 2:52 p.m.; updated June 1, 11:26 a.m.)

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