Contractors to the VA initiative say it is the first department to implement a program that complies with a recent presidential directive requiring agencies to use a single smart card with the best technology available, including digital signatures.
Dubbed OneVA, the photo-identification card doubles as a computer-access card for employees to use when connecting to the department's system.
Its capabilities include the ability for doctors in VA hospitals to unplug a card from a reader, walk into another room and re-insert the card, bringing all available data immediately on-screen, said Bob Merkert, CEO of the SCM Microsystems smart card reader manufacturer.
OneVA has been distributed only in a pilot project to 950 employees at the Fayetteville VA Medical Center in Arkansas, but plans to give 500,000 cards to employees by 2006, a department spokeswoman said.
In deploying digital signatures, department officials say they are following direction from the Office of Management and Budget to use stronger security measures.
"OMB has endorsed the position that federal identity cards should be based on smart cards, and public key infrastructures is the single best approach for the federal government," said Pedro Cadenas, the department's associate deputy assistant secretary for cyber and information security.
"PKI provides substantially stronger authentication, and allows users to digitally sign transactions and protect sensitive information across the enterprise network," said Cadenas.
The department is the first to comply with a homeland security presidential directive issued in August, the most recent smart card order, said Tom Greco, vice president and general manager at Cybertrust. The National Institute of Standards and Technology expects to issue the standard by Feb. 25.
Cybertrust is one of three organizations, with VeriSign and the Agriculture Department, authorized to provide digital signature services to the federal government. Such signatures provide the credentials enabling encrypted Internet communication, and are regarded as more effective than the password-based security systems of most government agencies.
"VA is about 12 months ahead of where we believe most federal government agency will be, once the standard" is issued by NIST, said Greco. "The people involved with the VA are also involved in the federal inter-agency system" for PKI, and feel confident they have utilized the standard that will be selected.
In spite of Veterans Affairs' recent efforts, the Defense Department has been the most aggressive adopter of smart cards to date, issuing 4.2 million cards to nearly every military and civilian employee, said Craig Diffie, director of field marketing for the smart-card manufacturer Axalto.
Defense "was very aggressive," said Diffie. More than three years ago, "they just decided they were through waiting around on the technology" and began issuing cards before card readers were widely deployed.
Defense "led this whole charge of smart cards, and the VA is following in their footsteps," said Merkert.