Businessman staring at a half full glass


HSPD-12: Is government's glass half full or half empty?

The Heartbleed scare that shocked the Internet world in April reinforced the reality that the age of password-based authentication has ended. Shared secrets stored in vulnerable databases are simply not protected by single-factor identification.

The security community has long known that a secure second factor—bound to an assured identity—is the key to defending the IT ramparts from even more sophisticated attacks.  And while the financial industry is resisting the use of multifactor smart cards, the federal government has been focused on smart card technology since issuing Homeland Security Presidential Directive 12 (HSPD-12) almost a decade ago.

HSPD-12 was an unfunded mandate with the ambitious goal to issue “secure and reliable forms of identification for government employees and contractors … including contractor employees.” These credentials were to be used for multifactor logical and physical access to both facilities and information systems.

The HSPD-12 mandate is approaching its 10th anniversary on Aug. 27, 2014, an opportunity to assess the degree to which the directive has been followed. While the White House recognizes the program as a top IT security priority, and congressional attention to the topic promises to grow as the election season gets closer, a truer measure will be an assessment of how widely the technology is being used to secure federal IT systems.

While the initial data, based on statistics published in the White House Cross Agency Priorities  (CAP) report, indicates that the initiative has made significant progress, it also clearly demonstrates that there is a lot of work remaining to be done. 

What’s also clear from the report is that while many HSPD-12 cards have been issued, few are being used for logical access.

More than 30 percent, or nine of the 24 agencies studied, are still at 0 percent for personal identification verification (PIV) network access implementation and another 25 percent are at 10 percent or less. What is less clear is how much the card is contributing to the actual security of IT systems. The report does not show issuance and use for contract employees, and therefore does not measure the total percent of accounts that are secured with multi-factor access controls. This picture, unfortunately, should be considered a “glass half empty.”

However, at a recent GSA-sponsored seminar and vendor expo on the Identity, Credential and Access Management (ICAM) program, the departments of Energy, Agriculture and Health and Human Services described how their agencies are realizing the benefits of smart card authentication, a scenario in which the glass is half full, although the benefits realized by these agencies were not just related to IT security.

The use of digital signatures alone typically saves impressive amounts money in managing official documents, for example. The common denominator in all successful programs was management’s realization that once the cards had been issued, it was foolish to leave their potential capabilities unused.

For example, the Census Bureau has built a complete identity management infrastructure with two-factor access, both logical and physical, for employees as well as contractors. The effort was directed by an HSPD-12 Program Management Office (PMO) that had the authority, skills and resources to lead the agency through the process.

The infrastructure that the PMO constructed manages one-stop provisioning and revocation of all identities, including public customers such as the international news media. It is capable of managing non-PIV credentials from programs like OpenID and non-federal issued credentials such as those associated with members of the Smart Card Alliance.

With standards for use of derived credentials now issued by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the Census Bureau will be able to bring two-factor security to mobile devices of thousands of enumerators who use mobile devices in the field.

The success of the Census Bureau represents just the beginning of smart card potential. Near field communication standards and secure contactless readers are right around the corner. A pilot project is underway that will allow PIV cards to be used in the fare collection systems of several municipal transportation departments, including the Washington, D.C., Metro. The Defense Department identity credential (aka, Common Access Card or CAC) can be used to register in the TSA Precheck Program, which allows access to expedited security screening at many airports, and there is much more to come.

All in all, the results show that the smart card is a technology whose time has come, and the federal government is poised to ride that wave. 

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