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Commerce Department To Head Web Identity Initiative

The agency will work with government and private industry to revolutionize how identities are used and authenticated online.

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In support of an Obama administration cybersecurity initiative, the Department of Commerce will open an office focused on promoting and creating trusted online identities for Web users, officials said Friday at an event at Stanford University in California.

The office will support the Obama administration's National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace (NSTIC), an effort to rally government, tech companies, and standards bodies to create what the administration is calling "the identity ecosystem," a loosely coupled set of interoperable identity technologies and standards that serve as the next-generation platform for online identity authentication. These credentials would allow people to use one trusted identity for multiple Web sites without having to remember numerous passwords.

"The end game is to create an identity ecosystem where individuals and corporations can complete online transactions with greater confidence," said Commerce secretary Gary Locke. "To accomplish this, we need the private sector's expertise and involvement in designing, building, and implementing this ecosystem." The event at Stanford last week coincided with government meetings with Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and others to urge investment in and development of identity technologies.

The new office will, among other things, support pilot identity and authentication projects and work not only with private industry but also with the General Services Administration and the Department of Homeland Security in executing NSTIC.

A final version of NSTIC, which has been available in draft form since June 2010, is expected in the next few months, according to a blog post by White House cybersecurity coordinator Howard Schmidt.

NSTIC differs from previous government identity initiatives in that it would not be mandatory, does not depend on government systems, and does not involve giant identity databases. The government would neither control the ecosystem nor issue identity cards. Instead, the ecosystem would be optional, largely privately developed and operated, and the White House is pushing to ensure that it would require storage of as little personal data as possible.

"There is no magic bullet," Locke said. "However, we do know that robust identity solutions can substantially enhance the trustworthiness of online transactions, improve security, and enhance privacy as well."

Such a system will give Internet users options, Schmidt said at the event. "I don't have to get a credential if I don't want one," he said. "If I want to get a credential, I don't have to use it all the time. I can be selective where I use it and when I use it." In his blog, he added that users will also be able to choose between multiple public and private identity providers.

While previous government initiatives around Web security and online identities have proved controversial, Jim Dempsey, director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a non-profit focused on protecting civil liberties online, applauded the Obama administration's moves with NSTIC.

"The administration has carried out an open, comprehensive process here," he said in a panel discussion at the Stanford event. "It's good to see the U.S. government setting a global model because other countries are looking at this closely and some are taking a significantly more regulatory approach."

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