Digital certification could affect thousands of Defense contractors

A new Defense Department mandate for digital certification taking effect Thursday could prevent thousands of defense contractors from working with the department until they comply.

The program requires the provision of digital certificates to improve the security of transactions between Defense and its contractors. But according to one provider of the certificates, most contractors had not joined the program as the mandate took effect.

There are about 350,000 defense contractors, and an estimated 10 percent to 15 percent have obtained certificates, said Barry Leffew, vice president for the public sector at VeriSign. "I think people are still being made aware of this," he said.

Defense increasingly is conducting activities online, including ordering and procurement, logistics such as transporting troops, correspondence and requests for proposals to bid on contracts. As of now, contractors need certificates to participate in any of the online activities.

The certificates use public-key infrastructure technology to encrypt transaction information and verify contractor identities. A large contractor may have as many as 20,000 employees, each of whom would have his or her own certificate, he said.

Use of the certificates was optional before April 1, and several thousand contractors had them. Leffew said his company has seen "exponential increase" in inquiries, and he expects a rise in demand after April 1. VeriSign can fill certificate requests within 48 hours, he said. An individual certificate from VeriSign costs $110, with discounts for companies ordering large numbers.

Three companies are authorized to give certificates: VeriSign, Digital Signature Trust and Operational Research Consulting (ORC).

VeriSign offers different options for companies, depending on their size and needs. For instance, a larger company might need tools for managing the thousands of certificates it receives. Companies can track who has been issued certificates and when and be able to reclaim the certificates when people leave the company.

Leffew said the technology could be transferred to civilian agencies as well. "This is part of what we see as a governmental move to really secure and authenticate transactions," he said.