GPO expands into secure e-document business

This story has been updated to correct a reference to the source of chips for the passports.

The State Department’s shift to electronic passports has opened a new line of business for the Government Printing Office, which has expanded into the production of Personal Identity Verification ID cards as well as other secure electronic documents for government.

“We’ve made passports for the past 80 years,” said Steve LeBlanc, GPO’s managing director of security and intelligent documents. “Our No. 1 customer is the Department of State.”

The use of computer chips and RF technology is changing not only the way secure documents are used but also the skill sets needed to manufacture them. “The job of incorporating electronics into traditional printing and binding has been a real transformation for the whole workforce,” LeBlanc said.


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The transformation has kept printers busy as the demand for traditional skills wanes. It led to the creation of the Secure Credential Center in GPO’s downtown Washington, D.C., printing plant in 2007, along with a satellite facility at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi that is dedicated to electronic passports.

The Washington center focuses on the manufacture of secure credentials in a card format for a handful of federal customers. Agencies do not have to use GPO to supply their credentials, but the printing office hopes that a secure government facility that operates with government employees and ensures the integrity of its supply chain will be attractive to customers.

“We realized that this is what agencies would be looking for,” after the release of Homeland Security Presidential Directive 12, said Sandra Logan, the center’s technical program manager. HSPD-12, issued in 2004, mandated a common, interoperable ID card for executive branch employees and contractors with cryptographically protected electronic data that could be used for both logical and physical access.

Secure Credential Center

GPO gained its expertise in manufacturing with chip technology through its work with passports. Current passports contain a chip in the back cover that holds the same personal information that is printed on the document, along with biometric data. An antenna in the cover allows this protected data to be remotely accessed at checkpoints. GPO has produced about 70 million of the passports since they first appeared in 2005. Full production began in 2006, and GPO now produces from 10 to 12 million a year.

GPO’s Secure Credential Center now produces PIV cards for seven agencies in the Homeland Security Department. It also  produces Trusted Traveler cards for North American border crossings; Medicare beneficiary cards for Puerto Rico; ID cards and driver’s licenses for foreign diplomats and their families; DCOne ID cards for Washington residents and special event credentials for the FBI for high-security events such as a presidential inauguration or the Super Bowl.

The Secure Credential Center expects to produce about 600,000 Trusted Traveler Cards a year and has provided about 200,000 PIV cards to DHS since it began production in mid-2011.

GPO currently is producing only a small percentage of the total number PIV cards, which are used in all civilian agencies, but by law GPO is prohibited from competing with private-sector vendors for the business. GPO was certified by the General Services Administration to provide the cards in 2010 and can make its services available to agencies, but it cannot bid on published requests for proposals for the service. It is up to an agency to decide whether to use GPO, and using GPO usually means giving up an established relationship with a vendor that already is supplying the cards.

“The development of the opportunity is a long process,” said acting Public Printer Davita Vance-Cooks. “We are now seeing the fruits of two or three years of work.”

GPO technical expertise

Because GPO cannot make a profit, it usually can offer a good price on its services. But security and technical expertise are the primary differentiators for providing secure credentials. GPO assisted in the design and development of the electronic passport.

“From the beginning it was a partnership,” LeBlanc said. GPO worked with the United Nations' International Civil Aviation Organization, the standard-setting group for passport interoperability, to produce an electronic document that was practical and would work with systems in place in other countries around the world.

Security is incorporated into the manufacture of credentials. Cards are built up from layers of material, each of which is bonded together and has its own security features. The electronic chip and antenna can be embedded between layers if they are included. Cards can be printed with tactile features, special inks and optical designs to resist alteration and counterfeiting. Printing and photographs can be engraved with a laser onto an inside reactive layer of a card after it has been assembled so it cannot be tampered with.

GPO can provide a finished, personalized card to the customer, or it can provide blanks that the agency can complete with personal information when it is issued. DHS takes blank PIV cards and does final personalization when the cards are issued to its employees and contractors. For cards that are finished and personalized by GPO, the Secure Credential Center receives the personal information used on the card electronically over a secure connection.

“Whatever they require, we can support,” Logan said of the connections. “This room is firewalled from GPO networks.”

Card production facilities are located in a secure area of the GPO plant, and security is extended to the supply chain. There are regular formal on-site audits of suppliers, employees have background checks and materials are delivered to GPO in armored vehicles to guarded loading docks.

The development and manufacturing process for the cards includes engineering change controls to ensure product integrity and reliability. Both Stennis and the Washington facilities have been certified to ISO 9001 specifications for quality management to ensure consistent manufacturing and security controls, a two-year process.

“We are always working to improve the speed and security of the chips and the operating systems on the cards and readers,” LeBlanc said. “Everything has to be backwards compatible and interoperable with the systems already in place, but that doesn’t stop us from moving forward with new products.”

New passport chips

A new IBM manufacturing facility in Vermont will soon begin providing chips for Infineon, which along with Gemalto provides electronic passport covers to GPO. Chips in the Gemalto covers are supplied by NXP Semiconductor."

Current operations at the Secure Credential Center are relatively small. The Intelligent Documents division has about 150 employees now, 43 of them in Stennis and the rest in Washington. But LeBlanc said he hopes to be able to expand.

“The programs are growing, and we’re trying to grow with them,” he said. “This was a one-shift operation for a long time,” and a second shift was added to the Washington center in November.

The Stennis facility currently produces only passports, and it handles about 30 percent of the GPO output; the rest are produced in Washington. Long-term plans call for making the Stennis plant a back-up site for the card manufacturing facilities in Washington to ensure continuity of operations.

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