Smart cards are still stovepiped

With more than 4 million cards issued, DOD's Common Access Card has become the benchmark for government smart-card programs.

David S. Spence

Interoperability, even within agencies, remains a challenge as more organizations roll out programs

The government is by far the nation's leading issuer of smart cards, but it still struggles to find cross-agency uses for them.

'I think it is a lot easier to issue cards than it is to put in a large infrastructure,' said Kenneth C. Scheflen, director of the Defense Manpower Center. He and other government smart-card managers spoke at a conference in Arlington, Va.

With more than 4 million cards issued, the Defense Department's Common Access Card has become the benchmark for government card programs. 'The infrastructure is still lagging,' Scheflen said. 'We'll get there, but there is a lot of work yet to do.'

So far, smart-card applications have flourished best in closed environments such as the military. The Treasury Department became one of the government's largest card issuers by implementing three financial applications for DOD.

'We've issued more than 1 million cards, and we've loaded about $350 million onto them,' said Graham McKenzie, Treasury's smart-card program manager.

More than 80 percent of active-duty military personnel and DOD contractors hold the cards, and 10,000 a day continue to be handed out at 900 sites in 25 countries.

As the department finishes the first round of card issuance and starts a second generation, officials are looking for departmentwide applications, such as physical access to DOD facilities. The credit card industry is DOD's model for electronic verification of large transaction volumes, Scheflen said.

Because it was the first large smart-card implementation, CAC stands too much alone, he said. 'We need to move to interoperability' with other government programs, probably involving addition of biometric data as federal standards firm up.

Even within DOD there are a number of standalone smart-card programs separate from CAC. Treasury's first financial application for DOD was an on-base payment card for new military recruits who have no local bank account. Recruits 'have financial needs that start within their first 10 minutes in the military,' McKenzie said.

About two years ago, DOD and Treasury set up a similar program for troops overseas. Combat troops now in Iraq and Afghanistan are using the EagleCash cards instead of money for purchases on base.

'Over time, this is going to get us out of the business of shipping U.S. currency into war theaters,' McKenzie said.

The most recent program is an app used by sailors and Marines that 'is in its infancy on a handful of ships,' he said.

Meanwhile, the State Department is taking its first steps toward smart-card interoperability with digital travel documents.

State began gathering digital fingerprints from overseas visa applicants last year, and since January the Homeland Security Department has been checking the prints against records of known or suspected terrorists and criminals as part of the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology program.

State's program expanding

Joanne Arzt, senior biometrics adviser for State's Bureau of Consular Affairs, said the digital fingerprint program started slowly at 80 small posts. About 90 posts are now involved, and biometric data is being collected for about 23 percent of all visa applicants. By October, she said, all 214 consular posts that do visa interviews will participate.

October also is the deadline under the 2002 Enhanced Border Security Act for foreign countries not in the visa waiver program to begin issuing biometric passports for travel here. The act does not require the technology on U.S. passports, but State has an aggressive plan to upgrade them.
New U.S. passports will have 64K chips with antennas for contactless use. The chips will store all the machine-readable data now included on paper passports.

State issues about 7 million passports a year, each valid for 10 years for adults. The new passports will have a 10-year life, although the department still is testing to see whether the chips will last that long.

The General Accounting Office in March sustained a vendor protest on the selection process for the passport program, but interoperability issues must be worked out before procurement can begin.

'There are a lot of technical issues still being hammered out in the final stages,' in discussions with other countries, said Consular Affairs spokesman Stuart Patt.

The deadline for foreign smart passports will likely be pushed back by at least a year, but state still hopes to begin issuing its first smart passports in October to a handful of official travelers. A pilot for tourist passports could begin late this year, with full rollout next year.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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