PKI momentum builds, program manager says

A dozen years after the start of the federal push for a public-key infrastructure, the technology is gaining momentum, and more agencies will be using PKI in a matter of months, a federal program manager predicts.

By year's end, Tim Polk estimated, eight to 10 agencies will be heavily engaged in PKI, nearly twice the number involved today.

Polk, the PKI program manager at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, spoke today at a conference on IT security in Washington sponsored by the research and advisory firm Gartner Inc. of Stamford, Conn.

'We're going to have some very interesting, very useful applications come online,' Polk said. 'There isn't a killer app right now. Secure e-mail is not the killer app. Custom applications are emerging.'

As governments and businesses move from paper to electronic documents, PKI holds promise as an effective way to protect and validate those documents and verify identities. PKI also is being used with employee identification smart cards.

In a signal of rising interest in PKI, 'communities of interest are emerging,' including in education and aerospace, Polk said.

Private-sector bridges, such as one being developed for aerospace companies, are expected to help with speeding certifications and, ultimately, the exchange of information among government agencies, businesses and citizens, Polk said.

A certification authority issues the electronic credentials, or digital certificates, needed to make PKI work, and a bridge helps translate the certificates between different systems. A Federal Bridge Certification Authority, established two years ago, is the hub designed to let different agency PKIs work together.

'We would much prefer to cross-certify with the aerospace bridge, not with individual aerospace companies,' he said.

He acknowledged that certificate policies are difficult. 'Agencies hate to write them.'

A number of factors'from cultural inertia to differing standards to funding'have hobbled PKI efforts in public and private sectors. One state at the forefront, Illinois, expects that cost-savings from reduced paperwork processing will help offset costs of PKI, Polk said.

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