DOD cracks smart-card nut

A recent award of four contracts for smart-card middleware is a major step forward for the Defense Department's Common Access Card (CAC) program, which aims to have about 3.5 million cards issued by 2004.

The organizations that deploy the middleware — software that interprets smart-card information for use by other applications — will soon be able to use any vendor's compliant smart card, or a mix of cards, to ensure secure access to their data network.

The middleware could also make it easier to adapt the cards to work with a host of other applications that need information about the person holding the card to process transactions, such as managing human resource information and sending secure messages.

At least, that's the theory. Now it's up to the government and its industry partners to put the plan into practice, being careful not to sacrifice the much-valued interoperability for speedy or special- interest solutions.

The CAC specifications include various industry standards, as well as the General Services Administration's Basic Services Interface and the CAC-specific Extended Services Interface, which are all meant to ensure the interoperability of cards that comply with the specifications.

Any DOD employee with a CAC should be able to use it to access any military system he or she is cleared for, no matter where a system is located.

Eventually, that single card could also enable physical access to any DOD building and carry some personal information such as basic benefit and medical data and biometric identifiers. The ultimate goal is to have one card that will work across all of government, civilian and military, and provide secure logical and physical access wherever the holder goes.

Until recently, however, smart cards were completely proprietary products that differed substantially from one another, and the card readers only worked with a particular vendor's card.

That has been changing, and with the recent award of the middleware contracts, the third and last leg of the interoperability stool is now in place, according to Brett Michaels, director of RSA Security Inc.'s federal operations.

Issues involved with the other two legs — the card's physical form factor and operating systems — have mostly been worked out. Cards now comply with an industry standard form factor, so that any vendor's reader can take them. Cards also have been migrating to use the open Java operating system as the standard.

"Middleware, on the other hand, is very different," Michaels said. "It's very dependent on how the various elements of the card are laid out, what applets there are on the card, what data containers there are, and so on." Finding a common way to address those differences has been the most important near-term interoperability issue, he said.

And even when there seems to be an agreement on a standard approach, there might not be.

"There's really no such thing as absolute standards," said Malcolm MacTaggart, president and chief executive officer of CryptoCard Corp., which provides smart cards and associated hardware and software security tokens. "They are always subject to the interpretation of any particular [middleware] vendor."

That's why his company's product, which a number of government agencies use, only works with a couple of smart-card readers and not with others.

"We've run into horrible problems trying to accommodate middleware," MacTaggart said.

DOD developed the CAC specification to prevent those kinds of problems. Officials now believe that a strict requirement that smart-card software and hardware comply with the specification, and rigorous testing to weed out those products that don't, is at last producing conformity.

"Compliance was a strong concern two years ago, but there's been a lot of changes since then," said Michael Butler, chief of DOD's smart-card programs. "We don't feel we have to be concerned with that anymore."

That leaves DOD users of smart-card products free to concentrate on how they want to use the various middleware products now competing for their attention, said Glen Mullen, manager for new technology development at Schlumberger Ltd., the only company so far to provide CAC middleware for both Microsoft Corp. Windows and Linux environments. Schlumberger Omnes Inc. was a winner of the three-year middleware contracts, along with Datakey Inc., Spyrus Inc. and Litronic, a division of SSP Solutions Inc.

Potential uses initially involve software that enables a relatively quick log-on to the network by a smart-card user, Mullen said, as well as providing a set of application program interfaces (APIs) that provides fast access to the full range of functions on the card.

"The one thing that you want is a breadth of potential applications that can be used with the card," Mullen said. "So the approach is to try and make middleware as flexible as possible, while not putting too much pressure on system resources" of the computers running the middleware.

As long as vendors adhere to the CAC specification and standards, integration should be fairly easy, he said. The hard part is keeping the middleware stable, so that it can be extended to greater numbers of seats and new applications in an enterprise without compatibility problems cropping up.

"Standards are important, but sometimes you have to stray to get the most functionality out of a card, while at the same time making sure the APIs can still work with the various systems," he said.

It's up to the systems integrators that are implementing the DOD smart-card programs to make sure that the middleware complies with the CAC specification, said Keith Ward, manager for identification and authentication solutions at Northrop Grumman Corp., which is a prime vendor for GSA's 10-year smart-card system and services contract.

"As it sits now, there are some nuances between the middleware that vendors supply," Ward said. "So we are very careful about what we distribute to our customers."

What will help is a comprehensive smart-card interoperability specification covering hardware and software, including middleware, that has been developed jointly by GSA and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, Ward said. The specification is notable because it is the first issued by a single authority — it's published and maintained by NIST — with the idea that it can be applied across government.

Version 2.0 of the Government Smart Card Interoperability Specification was published in June. DOD officials have agreed that CAC procurements from now on will be in accordance with that specification.

"We're shooting for a standard that will eventually cover both DOD and the civilian agencies," said Mike Brooks, director of GSA's Center for Smart Card Solutions. "Specification 2.0 will be the benchmark [for interoperability], and we expect that the DOD will migrate in that direction."

There will always be differences in the way that applications and middleware are applied to specific agency business processes, but Ward thinks the overall infrastructure addressed by Version 2.0 could cover 80 percent to 90 percent of the logical components that each agency will use in its smart-card program.

Robinson is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Ore. He can be reached at hullite@mindspring.com.

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