Companies build authentication bridge to government agencies

The first nonfederal public-key infrastructure bridge launched May 15. CertiPath, a joint venture among defense communications companies ARINC, Exostar and SITA, secures document and e-mail exchanges via a single credential, giving companies a faster and easier way to attain cross-certification for their workers.

Designed for the aerospace and defense industries, CertiPath includes six charter companies: Boeing, Lockheed Martin, BAE Systems, Raytheon, Northrop Grumman and the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co.’s Airbus division. It is also linked to the governmentwide Federal Bridge Certification Authority.

Problems arise when companies and agencies have different security standards and no bridge for certification, said Jeff Nigriny, CertiPath’s chief technology officer and Exostar’s chief security officer. For example, one company might require background checks on a worker’s neighbors and family members, while another only verifies the worker’s background.

“You get into policy collision,” Nigriny said. “CertiPath acts as a policy buoy” by balancing those disparate standards.

Peter Alterman, chairman of the Federal PKI Policy Authority, said CertiPath streamlines the certification process.

“Because I know their business processes and they know my business processes, I can trust that when [a company] says their certificate is valid, it’s valid,” he said. Alterman views CertiPath as a spoke in the wheel of three methods of certification; the other two are external electronic certification and cross-certification of one company’s internal credentials with those of a government-certified company.

“There are many paths to the truth,” Alterman said.

Companies can choose to skip CertiPath in favor of using their own PKI and the External Certification Authority program, but Alterman said that process is lengthy and costly.

Cross-certification has problems of its own, including the difficulties companies face in keeping track of employees. For example, a worker assigned to a collaborative contract at one company would receive a temporary credential. But if that worker leaves the company, the cross-certified company would not know of the worker’s departure, creating possible confusion in managing credentials.

Under CertiPath, it still takes time to become aligned with the bridge. Although Boeing is a charter company and has an established PKI system, linking its certifications to the bridge took about nine months. It is currently the only charter firm that is cross-certified with CertiPath.

John Lyons, manager of identity systems and services at Boeing, is upbeat about the company’s involvement in the program and believes that corporate PKI bridges will play a major role in government certification efforts.

“Watch this space,” Lyons said. “As we reach critical mass with the aerospace bridge, with all the other cross-certification done in the federal government, I think you’ll find the use of the technology really take off.”

NEXT STORY: L-3 adds homeland security group

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