USPS set to put federal ID system to the test

The idea of using one online credential to deal with multiple government agencies will get a step closer to reality this winter, when the U.S. Postal Service begins testing such a system with as many as six agencies.


One ID for many sites? How a federated credential exchange works.

SecureKey, selected by USPS for the FCCX pilot, already provides a similar bridge service for the Canadian government. FCCX is expected to work much the same way. Read more.

The Federal Cloud Credential Exchange (FCCX) will be a federated identity management hub that will let agencies accept online credentials issued by trusted third parties. This would offload from agencies the burden of managing usernames and passwords, and it would allow citizens to use existing log-in credentials that have been issued by another organization they already do business with.

USPS has selected SecureKey Technologies to provide a cloud-based platform for a pilot program to validate digital credentials for citizen access to government services.

FCCX will use the SecureKey Exchange, which already provides similar services to the Canadian government. The service is akin to an online payment gateway system that links multiple merchants with multiple credit card issuers, said SecureKey chief marketing officer Andre Boysen. 

“We’re using the same notion to build a two-sided identity marketplace,” Boysen said.

The process will use a “triple-blind” process to hide personal information from the FCCX hub and the relaying agency, to hide the identity of the original issuer of the credentials and to prevent log-in information from being shared or compared between agencies.

“The FCCX service will not have any insight into citizens’ identities or store personal information about them,” USPS said in a written statement. “It only will be designed to pass the credentials between the approved credential provider and the federal agency.”

The contract was awarded Aug. 19 for the one-year pilot program. Development is expected to begin this fall, with testing starting in January. The pilot will include up to six agencies that will make citizen log-in to their services available via FCCX. Trusted identity providers will be approved under the Federal Identity, Credential, and Access Management (FICAM) initiative, and they will support the four Levels of Assurance defined by the National Institute of Standards and Technology required for credentials used to access government resources.

The pilot provides a chance to evaluate whether there is a viable market and revenue model for the Postal Service to deliver this type of service, USPS said. It also will validate technical feasibility and pinpoint what, if any, changes would be necessary to move on to full operating capacity for the government. 

“The goal is to prove successful for all involved and move into full production,” the USPS statement said. 

The need to verify the identity of remote users prevents organizations from taking full advantage of the Internet to provide services and transactions. This process requires verifying the identity of the user during enrollment in a system and providing some form of credential—most commonly a user name and password—that can be presented online to prove identity. The rigor of the initial identity proofing and the type of credentials issued depends on the level of assurance required for the transaction. Activity involving sensitive information and financial transactions usually requires a higher level of assurance, more rigorous identity proofing and more secure credentials.

The technology to provide this assurance is in use, but the task of managing multiple identities and credentials can quickly become overwhelming for both the end user and the organization. One solution is to create bridges that can leverage existing credentials issued by trusted parties for acceptance by another party.

FCCX is an outgrowth of an October 2011 memo from Federal CIO Steven VanRoekel requiring agencies to “begin leveraging externally-issued credentials, in addition to continuing to offer federally-issued credentials.” The White House convened a team of agency representatives in 2012 to identify requirements for the program. USPS was chosen to lead the pilot, and issued an RFP for cloud services to host the exchange early this year.

Several such bridge architectures already exist, but they are typically for limited use. The Federal Bridge Certification Authority, for example, facilitates acceptance of digital certificates within government. The National Institutes of Health’s PubMed site, launched in 2010, uses third-party credentials for access. The site had more than 72,000 users by late 2011, but is limited to the NIH user community.

If successful, FCCX could jumpstart the acceptance of a variety of types of identity credentials from multiple sources by a large number of agencies.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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