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Aerospace, Feds Activate PKI Bridge

The US Federal government and the aerospace industry are giving new life to PKI, building a bridge certificate authority to ease federated identity management

A new, commercially managed bridge based on public-key infrastructure went live last week, providing a secure, encrypted link between major aerospace companies and U.S. Federal government agencies using a single set of identity credentials.

The Certipath PKI bridge, one of the largest federated identity projects to date in the U.S., will link more than a million aerospace employees with each other and with more than 500,000 colleagues at major government agencies. The bridge will serve as a cross-certified PKI between the Federal Bridge Certificate Authority (FBCA) and the aerospace industry, creating a path for trusted communication and transactions among the participants.

CertiPath is a joint venture of ARINC, Exostar, and SITA -- three of the biggest service providers in the aerospace and defense industry. Its six charter members -- Boeing, Lockheed Martin, BAE Systems, Raytheon, Northrop Grumman, and EADS/Airbus -- have more than a million employees and 20,000 suppliers among them. Boeing was the first commercial company to cross-certify.

"Certipath provides assurance that companies can be their own [certificate] authorities by providing the process, technology, and governance of their identity management infrastructure," says Jeff Nigriny, CTO and president of Certipath.

Certificate authorities issue certificates to end-users and servers based on policies defined by the Certificate Policy (CP), which defines how a certificate can be used, and a Certification Practice Statement (CPS), which defines how the CA and digital certificates it issues are managed. A CA, its certificates, and the users and applications make up a Public Key Infrastructure (PKI).

Within a single PKI, users and applications can use certificates to communicate, relying on a commonly trusted CA. Before the CertiPath bridge, each employee, on each project required distinct and unique identity certification. Every time companies collaborated on a new project, the layers of required certification multiplied. When companies wanted to extend trust to external entities, such as a supply chain, the two PKIs had to be cross certified -- a complex process that requires review of the CP and CPS, mapping business requirements, company audits, and interoperability testing.

Cross certification is a time-consuming process and doesn't scale well. If a hundred companies want to use a PKI to conduct e-business, each company would have to complete a hundred cross-certifications. But with a bridge such as Certipath's or the FBCA, each company cross-certifies with the bridge, and the bridge defines the minimum policies and procedures required to join.

"We don't want to cross-certify with the world. It's too costly," says Peter Alterman, chair of the Federal PKI Policy Authority, which sets policy for the FBCA. "With two bridges, trust can transit from government agencies to private industry.

"Why do it? Savings in time and resources," reasons Alterman. "It's important for the Department of Defense or the Federal Aviation Administration to do business with Boeing. Those agencies want to know that people who are signing and authenticating transactions are Boeing people. In the old days, an agency user ID would be issued to external people, and it would cost big money to manage that account. The bridge CA really drives federation."

The bridge also provides better access control, Nigriny says. "A user name is not the most interesting attribute when it comes to access control," he says. "What a company needs to know are the citizenship, country, location, access level, and other attributes that are used to grant or deny access to sensitive information."

Will federal agencies use the new bridge? Alterman notes that they are already moving in that direction, because of emerging requirements mandated by the Department of Homeland Security (HSPD-12). (See Deadline Could Spur Smart Cards.) "Everything to enable PKI has to be done for HSPD-12 anyway. As soon as strong authentication became a security requirement, the ROI went out the door. As long as the infrastructure is built, then agencies will use it. The costs to PKI-enable applications are incremental."

— Mike Fratto, Editor at Large, Dark Reading

Organizations mentioned in this story

  • Boeing
  • Center for Disease Control and Prevention
  • Certipath, LLC
  • Department of Defense
  • Federal Bridge Certification Authority
  • General Services Administration
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