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White House Advances 'Trusted Identities' Program

National online identification program moves to Commerce Department
Federal government officials Friday revealed plans to create a new program office in the Department of Commerce that will implement the national "trusted identities" plan. But identity experts continue to express skepticism about the plan and its efficacy.

The National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace (NSTIC) program, which was announced last June, is a broad effort to build trust and authentication on a national scale, with the goal of improving the security of online commerce and encouraging consumers to do business online.

In remarks made at a Stanford University forum of business and academic leaders on Friday, U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke and White House Cybersecurity Coordinator Howard A. Schmidt announced plans to create a National Program Office within the Department of Commerce that would coordinate federal activities needed to implement the NSTIC. The national office would serve as the point of contact to bring the public and private sectors together to meet this challenge.

"Implementation of NSTIC would allow users the option to obtain secure, interoperable credentials from a range of service providers that would authenticate their identity for a variety of transactions, such as banking, accessing electronic health records and ordering products," the officials said. "This would simplify these transactions for users and reduce the amount of private information users must reveal to the many organizations they deal with online. Such a marketplace will ensure that no single credential or centralized database can emerge."

Observers expressed both disappointment that the federal government did not provide further details on the underlying technologies behind the program and skepticism that a national, government-led program will improve consumers' trust in online commerce.

"[Friday's remarks were] really a call to industry, rather than to consumers," said Neal O'Farrell, founder and executive director of the Identity Theft Council. "In the end, a program like this will only work if it's driven by consumers, but I have not heard them demanding it. In fact, there's a tremendous amount of mistrust in government among consumers in the U.S."

"The government is looking to make an impact on identity protection, but the system isn't broken today -- it's dysfunctional, but it's not broken," said Tim Rohrbaugh, vice president of information security at Intersections, a provider of consumer and corporate identity risk management services. "There's been a lot of improvement in identity management and protection out there -- there are a lot of tools already available."

Experts expressed frustration that the technologies behind the NSTIC still have not been outlined or recommended. While Schmidt said previously that the federal government has no plans to issue a "national identity card," as some other countries have, most experts agree the federal government program will likely involve some sort of token, probably either a smart card or a chip that can be placed into smartphones or other handheld devices.

"What will drive consumers to use something like this might not be security, but convenience," O'Farrell suggested. A personal smart card with fingerprint authentication technology -- or the ability to use fingerprint authentication on the screen of a smart phone -- would help alleviate the password problem, improving security while making secure access easier, he suggested.

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