The federal government's identity crisis

For decades, PIV and CAC cards have been the primary tools for agencies and contractors to verify the identity of employees and contractors. The COVID-19 outbreak could change that.

PIV cards

The coronavirus outbreak has shuttered federal office buildings and sent employees to work from home. While most expect those facilities to eventually reopen, the shift to telework is changing how agencies and contractors conduct identity and access management.

The decades-long dominance of Personal Identity Verification (PIV) and Common Access Cards (CAC) as the preferred method to regulate employee access to physical and IT resources may be coming to an end.

According to a January 2020 estimate from the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the federal government and its base of contractors combined use nearly 5 million PIV cards. Digital security contractor Gemalto, which makes smart cards, estimates that the Department of Defense has approximately 4.5 million CAC cards in use at any given time.

The problem: as quarantines and self-isolation guidelines have taken hold, not everyone has workstations or agency-issued laptops with card readers at home, leaving some feds and contractors with no easy way to fulfill the government's primary identity and access requirement.

Civilian agencies and the military are scrambling to purchase new computers and equipment, but they are competing with private industry and other organizations for limited supplies. The Army recently cited impending supply chain shortages to process an immediate sole source purchase of 200 Dell ruggedized laptops and docking stations that will "allow government workers to telework to avoid exposure to the potential COVID-19 while still completing the mission." Other agencies like the Department of the Interior have made similar purchases.

"Every day that passes confirmed COVID-19 cases spike and the death toll increases," the Army wrote in an April 10 justification. "It is imperative that these [notebooks] are obtained as quickly as possible to protect public health."

Jeremy Grant, a coordinator with the Better Identity Coalition, a non-profit advocacy organization made up of companies across the financial, health care, telecommunications, payments and security sectors, said adjusting to the new reality has been particularly problematic for the federal government.

"On the government side, it's definitely presenting some special challenges, given that while it's a great model and very secure, everything about the PIV is premised on this very robust in-person identity and proofing process," said Grant, a former senior executive advisor to NIST, in an interview. "The challenge has been that we built this policy assuming you can always have this in-person process. Now that it's not feasible, what are you supposed to do to make things secure?"

Further, new hires normally go through a thorough onboarding process to obtain their cards that often includes in-person interactions to collect biometrics like fingerprints for their PIV credentials. In a March 25 memo, the Office of Personnel Management noted that many of the federal, state and local offices that vet newly hired government employees are "temporarily closed" due to the coronavirus outbreak, making it difficult or impossible to fulfill FBI-requirements for fingerprints to process background investigations and criminal history checks.

The memo advises agencies to use a number of alternatives during the crisis, such as deferring the fingerprint collection, delaying the final reporting and adjudication of a new employee's background investigation or conducting temporary identity proofing through remote tools like video link, fax or email. New hires that vetted under the interim guidance will be required to undergo in-person identity-proofing when their agency returns to full capacity.

Just when that will be is the subject of much debate and speculation from epidemiologists and health experts, who have offered a wide range of estimates for when the world can expect to safely return to offices and resume group gatherings. Some experts have predicted the status quo could hold until next year or even 2022 if a new vaccine isn't discovered quickly. That has some cybersecurity and tech companies predicting a broader shift in the global economy where remote work -- and all its implications -- could be here to stay.

"BYOD is now the reality and will continue to be in the future, because I don't think we're going back to that type of work environment that we used to be in," said Greg Touhill, former federal CISO and current president of AppGate, during an April 15 webinar hosted by Billington CyberSecurity.

Duo Security, which makes and sells remote access tools, is betting that governments and private industry will use the crisis to restructure the way they conduct identity and access management -- moving away from physical access cards and toward solutions that allow workers to use their personal devices. Most organizations, the company's Advisory CISO Sean Frazier said in an interview, are looking for quick and easy ways to "keep the lights on" and ensure business continuity in the wake of the sudden switch.

"I think the PIV card of … 16 years ago when it came out was a really good idea, but we've kind of moved on from it from the perspective of agility," said Frazier. "It's not necessarily the easiest technology to ramp up quickly. So for example if you have some kind of event where all of a sudden your workers are remote and they're working from home using personal technology, it was really never designed for that. People are right now kind of scrambling and looking for comparable controls."

Frazier's boss, Head of Advisory CISOs Wendy Nather, warned that organizations aren't setting up their remote infrastructure for the long haul.

"A lot of organizations are thinking that this is a temporary aberration, and so when they put in an infrastructure to enable remote working they're putting in the fastest and cheapest thing they can find and they figure they'll just pull it back later when this is over," she said. "We don't know when this will be over. Even if it is over, we don't know how many employees are going to be willing to come back into the office."

Nather said agencies should also be increasing physical security to protect IT and other assets at their now largely empty office buildings and facilities. The Department of Veterans Affairs, for example, recently purchased new PIV card readers for one of its medical centers in Kansas City, Kan., and has cited the pandemic in multiple emergency procurements for security services to prevent unauthorized access to VA facilities during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Agencies that have historically avoided modernizing their IT and security infrastructure to handle large numbers of remote employees must now rush to implement ad-hoc protocols and purchase equipment to ensure their employees can access agency systems. The Department of Health and Human Services put out a special notice April 16 detailing an urgent COVID-related requirement for a multi-factor authentication and identity assurance solution that can provide remote access to agency resources.

"There's a lot of employees who were never approved for remote working. Now they're signing in through their personal devices," Grant said. "What information do you let them access? Odds are their home device is not going to have a smart card reader built in, so how do you build in some multifactor authentication?"

There are a number of ideas to bridge the access gap in the short term, from implementing new multifactor authentication processes, using app-based solutions, leveraging one-time passwords or even purchasing and distributing Yubikeys and other authentication hardware to agency personnel. Another option could be a larger move to rely more on authenticators that are already embedded in many of today's commercial computers and phones, allowing employees to use their personal devices to verify their identity.

Shifting your organization's security mindset from protecting data, not devices, could also help.

"Yes, [employees] may use their own personal technology but I as a business or agency still have to protect my data, so I've got to make sure that if they're coming in with a personal device, I know that device's software is up to date, that encryption is turned on, that they're using enabled biometrics so I can provide identity ... comparable to what a PIV might provide," said Frazier.

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