GSA lab to test authentication

GSA offers a five-step plan for authentication

  • Review OMB's E-Authentication guidance.

  • Perform a risk assessment of the e-gov application to map the system to one of four assurance levels.

  • Choose a credential provider from the approved list that matches the assurance level.

  • Select an approved product from the technology provider list.

  • Use the technical architecture documents for guidance on how to implement E-Authentication.
  • HHS' Rebecca Spitzgo says eventually users will sign up only once at the FirstGov portal to conduct transactions across government.

    Henrik G. DeGyor

    The Bush administration is pinning its e-government hopes on tests this summer of an authentication strategy that shifts its online focus from providing information to conducting transactions.

    As the cornerstone of the Quicksilver e-government effort, the General Services Administration's E-Authentication project will test a decentralized architecture to secure online transactions. It will host two pilots using the project as the guinea pig.

    In June, the grants portal will begin using Security Assertion Markup Language 1.0 to verify users' credentials through a vendor's database. SAML is an Extensible Markup Language schema to validate that users are who they claim to be.

    Rebecca Spitzgo, program director for at the Health and Human Services Department, said the project has been using part of the E-Authentication architecture since October. The grant portal's credential provider, Operational Research Consultants Inc. of Chesapeake, Va., currently maintains the users' personal identification numbers and password credentials. HHS replicates the data on a server.

    The first pilot will eliminate HHS' need for replication by using SAML to verify the credentials between the vendor and

    The second pilot, slated for late summer or early fall, will let selected users go to the FirstGov portal for single sign-on capabilities.

    Spitzgo said users eventually will tell FirstGov what transactions they are interested in conducting, and the portal will direct them to a list of credential providers.

    Each user then will sign up with one of the providers and, after registering with the transaction portal, conduct business online.

    'FirstGov will act like a traffic cop,' said Spitzgo, who took over as program manager last month after Charles Havekost became CIO at Health and Human Services. 'This second phase changes the interface with the customer and will be done similarly to what we did last June, so it is a proof of concept.'

    Users will run simulated data through the FirstGov single sign-on piece and evaluate the results before going into a live production environment, she said.

    Spitzgo said 853 users have registered with since October, and almost 300 of those have been given access to submit applications through the system. The number of registered users is increasing by 50 to 75 each week, and the program office has received about 120 electronic applications since October. is one of several transaction sites GSA plans to test, said Steve Timchak, E-Authentication's program executive. He would not provide more information on which of the 25 Quicksilver projects are scheduled to test the technology.

    Originally, the government had planned to create a massive central authentication system. But no system could scale to the size necessary to support all electronic transactions government-wide. The new architecture instead is based on the idea that the government will approve multiple authentication products and services for use under the mantle of E-Authentication.

    New standards

    For the decentralized approach, GSA is considering using new security assertion standards, such as SAML 1.1 and Web Service Federation language, and identity protocols from the Liberty Alliance and Shibboleth identity management federations.

    The E-Authentication team has set up an interoperability lab to test commercial products using SAML 1.0. For the tests, the lab has OK'd authentication products from three vendors: Hewlett-Packard Select Access, ShareID from Oblix Inc. of Cupertino, Calif., and Sun Microsystems' Sun ONE ID Server.

    The lab'staffed by workers from GSA, the National Institute of Standards and Technology and Enspier Technologies Corp. of Alexandria, Va.'will continue to test vendors' products to add to the list of approved tools, Timchak said.

    Besides the approved product list, GSA has developed a roster of trusted credential providers based on the four levels of assurance for e-government projects and major IT systems that GSA outlined last summer.

    GSA developed a framework to assess the trustworthiness of the credential service providers, Timchak said.

    'An agency that conducts a risk assessment will be able to determine the assurance level required to authenticate to an application.'


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