DHS seeks to outsource identification system

Plans could prompt criticism from privacy rights advocates and some lawmakers.

The Homeland Security Department is seeking to "completely outsource" a government-wide "smart card" system for verifying the identity of federal workers and contractors. But the plan may run afoul of some lawmakers, privacy advocates and a congressional mandate.

"The government is seeking information on the capability to provide outsourcing of the infrastructure needed for any or all" components outlined in a recent request for information about creating the system, the General Services Administration wrote in a document posted Monday at FedBizOpps.

GSA last month posted a request for information from companies on the potential of such a system, saying the agency wants the "capability to completely outsource the technical solution." Companies had until Monday to respond, and GSA said the contractor would have until August to design a system that would satisfy a 2004 presidential directive ordering a system by October.

President Bush issued the directive to establish common ID credentials to control access to federal facilities and computers. "This policy is intended to enhance security, increase efficiency, reduce identity fraud and protect personal privacy," GSA said in its request for information.

But the administration's plans for a privately run system could spark the ire of members of Congress and privacy rights advocates who repeatedly have voiced concern with companies controlling homeland security databases that contain personal information.

The department also appears to defy a congressional mandate to more effectively use a transportation security clearinghouse database. The database should be the "central identity management system for the deployment and operation of the ... transportation worker-identification credential program," read the conference report to the fiscal 2006 Homeland Security spending bill.

The database is run by a consortium of airport owners. The worker ID initiative aims to control access to airports by issuing a smart card to employees of the Transportation Security Administration and airports.

The Homeland Security Department would give the private sector responsibility for collecting, storing and maintaining workers' personal information, such as driver's licenses and passports, as well as digital photographs and scanned fingerprints. Companies potentially could secure a lucrative five-year deal, as the system would be used for hundreds of thousands of employees and federal contractors, according to the GSA document.

GSA wants to know if a commercial vendor can issue and distribute a card within 24 hours; notify or suspend a card within 20 minutes; and activate a card within five minutes. GSA said individual agencies would control personnel management systems, background investigations and access-control systems for their own employees.