Keystone State Aims to Kill the Password

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The commonwealth's login network could help secure online shopping and other e-commerce services worldwide.

Pennsylvania is letting residents renew driver’s licenses, apply for state benefits and potentially even charge pizza pies online without divulging personal information or creating a new password. 

They are encouraged to reuse passwords across multiple accounts.

Typically, that’s a big no-no. Recycling passwords can compromise all your accounts, if that one login is ever stolen.

But under Pennsylvania’s arrangement, personal information is stored with a trusted third party, like Facebook, Verizon or VeriSign – depending on the level of security required for the online transaction. That ID provider asks a user to verify personal details – one time – to create a single credential that will work across multiple accounts.

This is more than an effort to annihilate passwords.

State officials are providing the “Keystone ID” so citizens don’t have to divulge their Social Security numbers and other sensitive data to agencies and retailers – and fraudulent websites, phishing scammers and everyone else who asks for it.

In 2013, the National Institute of Standards and Technology awarded Pennsylvania and Michigan each more than $1 million to launch new ID tools.

Pennsylvania Takes Lead in Federal Trusted Identity Program

Pennsylvania is in the testing phase of the experiment.

"If somebody wants to renew their fishing license and then they want to get their driver’s license renewed and want to do something else, whether its welfare benefits – it’s all kind of one system, one login, one credential, so they don’t have to continuously have different passwords for different types of transactions," said Erik Avakian, Pennsylvania's chief information security officer. "And that’s going to make the citizens more likely to utilize our services." 

So, for basic transactions, like signing into Pennsylvania's "JobGateway" employment search website, the user could skip registration and just plug in, say, a PayPal username and password. Other existing IDs that might be accepted for government services include Gmail, Twitter, LinkedIn, Yahoo, Windows and Symantec.

"We are not passing sensitive data back and forth," Avakian said. “You are never putting data at risk."

Michigan's trial focuses on validating a resident’s eligibility for public assistance online, without requiring the applicant to appear in person.

Both state projects tie into an industry-led, NIST-backed initiative called the National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace. NSTIC is aimed at transforming the way people log in Internetwide.

Launched in 2011, the program envisions an online world where one or only a few consumer IDs are needed to seal the deal on Best Buy purchases, retirement fund deposits and Department of Veterans Affairs medical appointments  just to name a few common transactions.

By the end of December, the federal government is expected to launch a microcosm of the new password-less world called Connect.gov. The system will allow a veteran to, for example, access his or her health records and buy U.S. Post Office stamps with an existing Verizon login.

In Pennsylvania, initial participants include the departments of Public Welfare and Transportation, along with information-services company Experian.

The Pennsylvania eHealth Initiative, an organization working to make digital patient records compatible across the health care system, is anticipated to join the effort later. The public-private initiative swaps medical files and prescription orders, not health insurance plans like HealthCare.gov.

"We have been working with the health information exchange," Avakian said. "They were rolling something out and they just haven’t rolled it out yet. Once they do, we are looking to definitely get them involved. They are definitely part of this.”

Users might need to maintain more than one credential, if they want to perform transactions requiring extensive identity proofing – such as facial recognition and credit checks.  

"Facebook is not going to get them access to do any sort of a sensitive transaction because that requires that next level of validation," Avakian said. "That’s where the Experians come in -- for that higher level of assurance." An example? Submitting state tax filings, Avakian said.

Federal Identity Program Not Without Its Critics

Still, the NSTIC program has its critics, including security professionals at participating ID providers.

When the strategy came up at last month's NIST Information Security and Privacy Advisory Board meeting, member Peter Weinberger, a Google senior software engineer, interjected: "Sorry. Nuts. Nuts. It’s not clear to me that breaches have anything to do with identity online. Period."

White House officials at the meeting, however, warned traditional logins are empowering ID thieves.

The daily occurrence of data breaches “has to do a lot with credentialing, because if somebody steals your credit card information -- and then puts together other information from other data sources about you and then tries to do something as you online -- [the criminal] only needs a username and a password," said Cheri Caddy, director for cybersecurity policy integration and outreach on the National Security Council.

Still, Apple Pay and other one-stop-shop credentials generated entirely by the private sector are now ramping up, unguided by the strategy’s privacy and security principles.

“Is that starting to pass by the NSTIC vision? Do we need to accelerate the NSTIC vision to make sure that we get what we want or are they, industry, going to drive all over our front lawn and create something new that works well enough?" Matt Thomlinson, vice president of Microsoft's Trustworthy Computing Security division, said at the NIST meeting.

Federal officials conceded that usability and industry acceptance are taking longer than expected.

"It turns out that identity management has just been a tougher nut to crack," said Tim Polk, assistant director for cybersecurity at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Rollout at the State Level a Test of the Concept

However, gradual adoption at the state level, such as the Keystone ID, could build to greater popularity overall, according to researchers. 

"If the ID can be used to access other commercial services, it will enjoy an even greater adoption," Forrester ID security analyst Andras Cser said. However, outsourcing ID verification could be expensive for the state, he said.

Pennsylvania officials say the venture will save money on balance.

For instance, the commonwealth's Fish and Boat Commission website maintains a virtual Rolodex of residents who log in to the site to obtain fishing licenses. Separately, the Liquor Control Board compiles a database of residents who want to buy wine online.

“At different agencies, you’ve got different directories," Avakian said. "By eliminating those, there is a huge cost saving.".

Still, the biggest driver for no-password logins remains security. 

“You have one single trusted credential, which really then enables us to streamline services to citizens with much better security, much better reliability of those credentials -- so it’s just the right thing to do,” Avakian said.

(Image via wk1003mike/Shutterstock.com)

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