Agencies expand smart-card programs

Millions of the credit card-sized devices will be distributed in the next few years.

Federal agencies are investing in "smart cards" at an increasing rate, and millions are expected to be distributed to employees in the next three years.

As of June 2004, 15 agencies had undertaken 34 ongoing smart card projects, according to testimony this week before the House Veterans Affairs Committee by Linda Koontz, director of information management issues at the Government Accountability Office. Nine large-scale agencywide projects are expected to be completed by September 2007. Six major efforts are already up and running.

Credit card-sized smart cards are used to allow access to buildings and computer systems by including information that authenticates the identity of the cardholder through photos, fingerprints or other means.

The Defense Department's program, which eventually will include 3.46 million users, is rolling out gradually, according to Koontz's testimony (GAO-04-948). Currently, 2.75 million cards are in use at Defense units.

The Army has launched a new smart card program known as EagleCash, to provide 15,000 cards for personnel at overseas bases to use in making purchases at military facilities. The idea is to reduce the service's vulnerability to counterfeiting by cutting down on the use of cash at bases.

Smart card projects still in the planning stages include a six-million-card project at the Homeland Security Department's Transportation Security Administration for a program that will provide access to secure areas in transportation facilities. Another DHS pilot program will distribute 250,000 cards to employees and contractors for identification and credentialing. The cards will use biometric technology such as an iris scan or fingerprint.

Smaller projects to provide access to computer systems, such a 50,000-card FBI project and a 3,100-card project at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, are under way, with cards already in distribution.

The General Services Administration has followed a previous GAO recommendation to update its smart card administrative guidance to address security standards, the report said. But other recommendations, including developing an implementation strategy and an evaluation system as well as sharing the lessons learned about smart cards across the federal government, have not been completed, GAO found.

GSA spokeswoman Viki Reath said the agency has action plans for following through on the recommendations.