Education chases Holy Grail of security

Department shoots for a trifecta of PIV access control, simplified sign-on and data encryption

The Education Department, along with the rest of the federal executive branch, has a mandate to protect personally identifiable information on mobile devices. But agencies must figure out how to accomplish that on their own.

Education's solution “is to encrypt the entire drive so that in the worst-case scenario, if the device is lost, we’ve lost the platform but not the information,” said Philip Loranger, the department's chief information security officer.

But cryptography is “the dark art of security,” Loranger said. “When you talk about security, peoples’ eyes roll back in their heads.”

For Education, the elusive Holy Grail of security is managing keys, integrating cryptography into systems and policies, and enabling it for users who don’t want to be bothered with endpoint security. To complicate matters, Loranger also wanted to use the new Personal Identity Verification smart card for strong two-factor authentication in accessing the encrypted drive and for logging on to a computer.

The department is integrating full-disk encryption from PGP with its PIV card so users can securely — and less frequently — log on to laptops. Education tested the system in late 2008 and is implementing it throughout the department, with the goal of finishing the move by next summer.

“That makes us unique in the federal space right now,” Loranger said. “I believe we’re the only ones to achieve this.”

Protecting data on mobile devices is the first phase of a comprehensive data protection program, PGP Chief Executive Officer Phillip Dunkelberger said. “Protecting data at rest is just part of the equation.”

Portable transport devices and services, such as USB drives, e-mail and other file transfer technologies, also need to be secure to provide complete data security. But integrating full-disk encryption with the PIV card is a big first step.

The PIV card, required under Homeland Security Presidential Directive 12, is intended to be a standards-based smart ID that federal workers and contractors can use to access physical facilities and information technology systems. But following a common set of standards does not ensure interoperability, Dunkelberger said.

“PIV cards and readers are manufactured by many different companies,” he said. Drivers and interfaces change, and Education is a large, technically complex environment. “One size fitting all usually doesn’t work.”

“This was not an out-of-the-box solution,” Loranger said.

Education settled on PGP Whole Disk Encryption and Universal Server because they are Federal Information Processing Standard 140-2 compliant. In addition, they are available under a General Services Administration blanket purchase agreement and already have a good market share in government.

“We weren’t blazing any new trails” with PGP, Loranger said.

However, Education broke new ground by integrating the company's technology with the PIV card and Microsoft Active Directory and by making the result user-friendly. “It was a matter of taking a whiteboard drawing and figuring out how to do the design,” he said. “We could have done all of this with great overhead to the user,” but that would not have worked well. “The first design was not the final design.”

Nevertheless, “it wasn’t as difficult as you might imagine when you bring the right people to the table,” Loranger said.

In this case, the right people formed a team that included VeriSign, prime contractor for the department’s PIV card deployment; Perot Systems, the lead IT integrator; and PGP. Loranger credited Dunkelberger’s personal involvement for much of the success. “He helped us understand what we wanted to do, what we could do, and enabled his technology folks to enable what we could do.”

The greatest challenge for the program was Education's heterogeneous environment, Dunkelberger said. The department’s environment is large, with 4,200 employees nationwide and an architecture built over time through low-bid procurements rather than a single enterprise design.

“They have a tremendous number of interfaces they have to deal with in the ecosystem,” Dunkelberger said. “We can rapidly integrate any of the driver code that people write for the cards. The hard part is the test matrix. We had to sort through and identify use cases, create the interfaces and test before implementing it. There is no vanilla installation in government.”

As now implemented, a user logging on to an encrypted laptop inserts a PIV card into a smart card reader built into the computer, which summons a PGP boot screen, where the user enters a six-digit personal identification number. If successful, the disk decrypts, and the computer boots — two separate actions that are transparent to the user. Without the PIV card, users would need to enter a password or pass phrase twice, one time to decrypt the disk and again to sign on.

The six-digit PIN and the digital certificate on the PIV card provide two-factor authentication that is stronger than a user name and password combination.

“With the PIV card, the six-digit PIN is all you need to put in,” Loranger said. “It is a shift away from presenting passwords for reduced log-in. We’re not using passwords; we’re using certificates. It is not single sign-on, because nothing is shared.” The card’s digital certificate is passed separately to PGP and for the log-in.

When the laptop connects to a network, the user also is authenticated to Active Directory, which provides appropriate authorization to network resources. When the computer logs off the network, all caches are wiped, and the disk is re-encrypted when the computer shuts down.

The PGP server automatically handles key generation, management and recovery for the numerous devices in use.

“Our key management hides the complexity from the management support team and from the end-user,” Dunkelberger said.

The result is full-disk encryption's emergence as a practical tool for Education to secure sensitive data on mobile devices, providing the highest level of protection for the lowest amount of user involvement, Loranger said.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


  • 2020 Government Innovation Awards
    Government Innovation Awards -

    21 Public Sector Innovation award winners

    These projects at the federal, state and local levels show just how transformative government IT can be.

  • Federal 100 Awards
    cheering federal workers

    Nominations for the 2021 Fed 100 are now being accepted

    The deadline for submissions is Dec. 31.

Stay Connected