Agencies Still Plugging Gaps in Smart Card Security


An HHS audit detailed a total of six shortcomings with the agency’s handling of smart cards.

The Department of Health and Human Services was too lax in issuing smart ID cards to new employees and failed to deactivate them in a timely manner when workers left the agency, according to a new audit from the department’s inspector general office.

Personal identity verification, or PIV, smart cards allow agency employees and contractors to access both federal facilities and agency networks and are a key part of the 2004 Homeland Security Presidential Directive-12, which required a common ID credential for federal personnel.

Agencies have now taken most of the big steps toward HSPD-12 implementation, but the latest audit reveals some are still vexed by plugging all the gaps in the process, according to security experts.

All told, the HHS IG detailed a total of six shortcomings with the agency’s handling of smart cards, five of them deemed “high risk.”

For example, the agency lacked controls to ensure it met all requirements for issuing credentials and didn’t do enough to make sure employees responsible for assigning the smart cards had undergone the proper training.

As of last month, HHS had issued more than 109,000 PIV cards -- about 76,000 to employees and the remainder to contractors, according to a progress update on the agency’s website.

The IG also found fault with the agency’s handling of the system that stores PIV information. The system’s firewall configuration policies didn’t comply with the agency’s own policies and workstations used by employees responsible for issuing PIV cards lacked the proper controls to ensure they were protected by anti-virus software and properly patched.

The report is short on specifics, "due to the sensitive nature of the specific findings identified."

The agency’s Office of Security and Strategic Information concurred with 14 of the 18 recommendations laid out by the IG and said it would take steps to address the issues identified in the audit.

‘The Major Moving Parts are in Place’

Probably the most concerning finding from the IG is the failure to quickly deactivate cards of employees who have left the agency, said April Resnick, a manager in the defense and security practice of Big Sky Associates. Her company has helped agencies comply with HSPD-12 mandates, although Big Sky has not consulted with HHS, she said.

The problem is that even though an agency may have a policy for deactivating cards, the lines of authority may be unclear. And even when clarity isn’t an issue, these functions are often carried out by employees in the field and something may be lost in translation, she said.

"I think the way to address that risk would be to really look at where these gaps are and either put together more clear standard operating procedures and not just leave it to the discretion of the local level or to do some kind of automation that really error proofs it," Resnick said.

HHS is far from the only agency to struggle with fully implementing HSPD-12 mandates. In 2012, an Energy Department IG audit reported Energy was not yet fully compliant with HSPD mandates even after a seven-year, $15 million effort. The year prior, the Government Accountability Office found uneven implementation across agencies. One of the concerns then was that despite the new technology enabled by smart PIV cards, some agencies were still using them like basic ID badges.

But the good news is that many agencies appear to have moved past through those growing pains.

"The major moving parts are in place," Resnick said. "What we're seeing here is just representative of closing the last few gaps.”

(Image via Tashatuvango/