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More than three years after a presidential directive requiring federal government agencies to issue new smart card identity credentials to all employees and contractors, progress on the mandate continues to be tediously slow.

Most agencies appear to have missed by a wide margin an Oct. 27 deadline by which they were supposed to have completed background checks and issued smart ID credentials to all employees and contractors with 15 years or less of service.

The so-called Personal Identity Verification (PIV) cards are supposed to be tamper-proof and to support biometric authentication features. PIV cards are designed to control access to federal computer networks and facilities and can be used across agencies. Federal agencies are mandated to issue them to all employees and contractors under Homeland Security Presidential Directive-12 of August 2004. Under the multiphase initiative, agencies have until October 2008 to issue PIV cards to all their employees and contractors.

Several government agencies contacted for this story did not respond to request for information on their implementation status. But an inspection of publicly posted information at IDmanagement.gov, a federal identity management site, showed that many government agencies had barely begun issuing the cards just prior to the October deadline.

Well below the Mendoza line

For example, as of Sept. 1, the U.S. Department of Commerce had not issued even one PIV credential, though it listed over 40,000 employees as requiring it. As of Oct. 19, the U.S. Social Security Administration had issued cards to 300 of its 65,000 employees and to 429 of its approximately 20,000 contractors. On July 1, the U.S. Department of Energy had issued the new cards to five out of its 13,500 employees and not a single one to its 98,000 or so contractors.

Doing slightly better was the Department of State, which has issued the new ID credentials to 4,450 of its 19,865 employees and to more than a quarter of its 7,000 contractors by Sept. 14. Similarly, the Department of Labour has issued cards to 6,450 of its 15,600 employees and about 400 of its 3,000 contractors as of Sept. 1

Though the numbers are a far cry from where the agencies were required to be, they are not entirely unexpected. From the program's outset, security analysts and government IT managers warned that agencies would have a hard time meeting HSPD-12 implementation deadlines for a variety of technological and logistical reasons.

"This is a classic example of politically established deadlines that are not based on any reality at all. It is no more complicated than that," said Franklin Reeder an independent consultant and a former chief of information policy at the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

"As best as I can tell, HSPD-12 deadlines were set without any real understanding of the enormity of what needed to be done or the costs" involved in doing so, said Reeder, who is also chairman for the Centre for Internet Security.

The National Institute for Standards and Technology, which was originally entrusted with the task of coming up with the technical specifications for HSPD-12, did a great job in delivering the standards on schedule, Reeder said. Since then, agencies have been left with the unenviable task of trying in an unreasonably short time frame to replace their existing physical and logical access infrastructures with that required for the PIV cards, Reeder said.

"It's one of those situations where the technology itself is not complicated, but it does comprise many different pieces that have to be carefully integrated," said Hord Tipton, a former CIO with the U.S. Department of the Interior. He said that the task involves a lot of cooperation between different groups within agencies that have traditionally not worked with each other, such as human resources, physical security and IT, and sometimes it can also mean replacing ongoing agency efforts with the standards mandated by HSPD-12. The biggest example of this is the U.S. Department of Defence, which rolled out millions of its own IDs, called Common Access Cards. Those were based on a different standard, and the DoD is currently in the process of migrating its system to the PIV standard.

Interoperability looms

In addition to the internal issues, agencies also need to make sure their PIV card infrastructures are interoperable with those of other government agencies, Tipton said. This raises a whole set of other technology, standards, trust, control and political issues that agencies need to navigate.

A shared service set up by the General Services Administration to help agencies enrol employees into the PIV program and issue the new cards to them is also still in the process of ramping up, according to Neville Pattison, vice president of business development and government affairs at smart card vendor Gemalto NV.

This may have had an impact on the 63 or so federal agencies, representing over 800,000 government employees, that are depending on GSA to issue PIV cards, he said. Pattison said he expects the GSA shared service to eventually achieve a run rate of around 10,000 cards per day, "but that's going to be a good five years" from now.

Some of the bigger agencies are also using the HSPD-12 mandate as an opportunity to roll out robust long-term ID management programs requiring considerably longer implementation schedules, Pattison said.

One example is the Department of Homeland Security, which has managed to get the approval of the OMB for a full compliance deadline of 2010.

DHS spokesman Larry Orluskie said the agency received OMB approval for the revised implementation schedule "so that it could most effectively develop and deploy a scalable agency-wide solution" that would form the foundation for ongoing security efforts at DHS.