Agencies face hurdles in implementing 'smart cards'

Federal agencies face significant hurdles in implementing the widespread use of "smart cards," panelists told a House Government Reform subcommittee on Tuesday.

Officials from the General Accounting Office (GAO), General Services Administration (GSA), and Defense and Commerce departments told lawmakers that culture is a major barrier to the cards' implementation, even though current smart-card technology would enable a way to secure employee identities and allow access to buildings and data.

Joel Willemssen, managing director of information technology at GAO, said federal officials need to move away from the current culture of verifying identities by seeing, touching and feeling badges to accepting smart cards, which generally are plastic cards about the size of a credit card and embedded with microchips containing data.

"We're trying to get away from the notion that looking at something provides security," said Ken Scheflen, director of the Manpower Data Center at Defense.

Florida Republican Adam Putnam, chairman of the Technology, Information Policy, Intergovernmental Relations and the Census Subcommittee, called it "absurd" that "culture is the biggest impediment to change."

Willemssen disagreed with the panel that culture is the largest hurdle and argued that sustained commitment at the executive level to allocate resources and funding for smart-card initiatives is essential to its success. Willemssen highlighted Defense's high-level support for implementing the largest smart-card program, the Common Access Card (CAC), which will be issued to some 4 million people.

Another challenge, according to Willemssen, is creating smart cards that can communicate with different agencies' information systems, with specifications for physical access, logical access, biometrics and cryptography.

Benjamin Wu, a technology deputy at Commerce, touted work by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)-which has been drafting such interoperability specifications and standards for smart cards since 1988)-as encouraging many federal agencies to move forward with smart-card programs.

But Putnam asked officials how the government could claim to have interoperability and standards when there are 62 different programs at 18 different agencies. "Aren't we closing the barn door after the horse is out?" he asked.

Putnam also asked if it would be feasible to have one government-wide smart card, but officials said management and policy issues would pose a challenge.

Wu said each agency would use smart cards for different applications, requiring various technologies for security, identification and access. He said NIST is investigating the use of smarts cards with multi-technology capabilities, including integrated circuits, optical-stripe media, bar codes, magnetic stripes, photographs and holograms.

Willemssen also outlined other challenges to a smart-card system: providing adequate resources for projects that can require technical and software modifications; integrating security practices across agencies; and maintaining security of the smart-card system and privacy of personal information.

"Once you set the policy, standards and technology will follow," Willemssen said.

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