Feds consider smart card options

Different choices for implementation balance security, cost and privacy

As the deadline for the deployment of smart cards looms, federal officials are still exploring the technology options they can use to make their agencies secure.

Homeland Security Presidential Directive 12 requires all agencies to begin supplying their workforces with secure identity cards by Oct. 27. The National Institute of Standards and Technology set guidelines for the information and technology those cards should contain in Federal Information Processing Standard 201 and Special Publication 800-76.

As a result, deciding what technology the smart cards should use may not be so difficult.

Walter Hamilton, chairman of the International Biometric Industry Association and vice president of business development at Saflink, gave a presentation at last month’s Smart Cards in Government Conference that showed that SP 800-76 guidelines offer agencies great leeway in the kinds of technology they can put on their smart cards.

Under FIPS 201, each card has one container that holds the standard process for physical access. Through this process, cardholders would insert their cards into a reader, enter a 6-digit PIN number and scan their fingerprints. The scanner would compare the scan to fingerprint data on the card. That would be the regular method of low-level interagency access.

SP 800-76 allows agencies to apply separate security measures outside FIPS 201. Although the standard process container must be on all cards, an agency isn’t required to use it as its primary method of access.

“They’re trying to keep it flexible,” said David Troy, director of identity management at EDS. “What NIST has done is basically standardize on-card [technologies]. The use of the card is going to vary between access points.”

In his presentation, Hamilton outlined several general alternatives to the FIPS standard. They included using a cardholder unique identifier to access information in an external database and providing other biometrics such as iris scanning via a contactless interface. Each method has advantages and disadvantages with regard to infrastructure costs and privacy. But Hamilton said he believes any of those methods would be more efficient than and just as secure as FIPS 201. Because of SP 800-76, agencies can choose their primary access method.

When an agency has its own system, however, interagency access becomes much more difficult. That’s where the original standard process comes into play. “If you decide to write your own container for authentication, and you have a visitor from, say, the State Department, you probably won’t be able to write their biometric on the card,” Hamilton said.

The interagency standard would then be used for identity verification, such as when a worker visits another agency and applies for a temporary pass.

The big concern is with smaller agencies that may not be able to afford multiple biometric readers or secure networked databases. Troy suggested that smaller agencies could create partnerships with one another or with larger departments to minimize infrastructure costs.

Practical smarts

Some of the biggest obstacles to implementing a smart card program are more practical than technological. Greta Lehman, director of the Identity Authentication Office at the Defense Manpower Data Center, oversaw the issuance of Common Access Cards (CAC) to military employees from 2001 to 2005. She ran into several problems, from finding card-issuance times prohibitively long to dealing with middleware and card-driver updates. She attributed many of those problems to an underdeveloped infrastructure.

“In 2001, the CAC program and public-key infrastructure were just exiting beta,” Lehman said. “They just weren’t ready for prime time.” The cards were not effective because officials at military bases did not think installing CAC readers was a high priority after the 2001 terrorist attacks. Cardholders forgot their personal identification numbers because they used their cards infrequently.

Lehman recommended that agencies install their card readers and middleware before issuing cards and establish a clear line of communication among human resources employees, tech workers and cardholders.


  • FCW Perspectives
    zero trust network

    Why zero trust is having a moment

    Improved technologies and growing threats have agencies actively pursuing dynamic and context-driven security.

  • Workforce
    online collaboration (elenabsl/Shutterstock.com)

    Federal employee job satisfaction climbed during pandemic

    The survey documents the rapid change to teleworking postures in government under the COVID-19 pandemic.

Stay Connected