New Government Technology Could Herald Our New Normal

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Perhaps we can get back to something akin to normal but in a safer way.

There is a small scene in the World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War novel that takes place after the zombie pandemic has largely been eliminated, where some of the survivors are sitting around in their clustered communities adjusting to the new normal. Unlike our COVID-19 pandemic, in World War Z the secret to surviving was getting people together to provide for mutual defense, sort of the opposite of social distancing. In any case, one of the men living in a community house finds an old porno movie and pops it into one of the last working VCRs. It holds everyone’s attention, but for an unintended reason. All of the guys were enthralled with a fancy car in a particular scene while fondly remembering when they used to own vehicles themselves.

I found myself feeling similarly nostalgic recently while binge-watching a crime drama to celebrate my umpteenth day in quarantine. There was a scene that was not at all related to the main plot of the episode where some of the detectives went to get a bite to eat. I was amazed by all the things I saw that seemed normal just a couple of months ago. How great it was when we could head out to a nice restaurant, order a thick steak sizzled to medium-rare perfection with a big buttered baked potato side and perhaps even a beer. Sitting there in a restaurant enjoying a pleasant evening with good food, friends and family is something I sorely miss.

One day we might get back to a place like that, though I doubt our new normal will look much like the old one. After seeing how easily a tiny virus can sneak into our lives and kill indiscriminately, few of us will probably ever feel comfortable sitting so close with others. Those days of carefree social interactions are likely not going to ever fully return.

But life will go on in some way. People will have to go back to work, even if they don’t go out to eat or to movie theaters and things like that. Federal workers will probably be called back sooner than anyone, especially given our government’s emphasis on “reopening” the nation.

This got me thinking about ways that we could perhaps get back to something akin to normal but in a safer way. And that led me to NextgenID, a company that is working on an access management and credential issuing machine that could be used to protect federal buildings without the need for person-to-person contact. I reached out to them, and they graciously let me take a hands-on (virtually of course) tour of their ID Capture Kiosk.

The kiosk looks like a little Star Wars robot and is designed for the issuing of HSPD-12 compliant credentials. It comes equipped with facial recognition, fingerprint readers, signature capture and voice recording. It’s compliant with Federal Information Processing Standard Publication (FIPS) 201-2 for personal identity verification, FIPS 140-2 for its crypto module and the NIST Special Publication 800-63A digital identity guidelines for enrollment and identity proofing.

Normally, when a federal employee or contractor needs to enroll or renew their Homeland Security Presidential Directive 12 (HSPD-12) identity credentials, they have to meet with an identity management official face-to-face and provide their biometric data. The kiosk eliminates that, placing the official on the screen while graphics and flashing LEDs on the kiosk help direct the person enrolling what to do.

Ironically, the system was designed before the coronavirus hit as a way to increase operational efficiency. It’s almost a happy accident that it could work so well in a post-virus world.

“While COVID-19 was not initially on our radar screen, it creates a use case that utilizes capabilities we designed into the system from the start,” said NextgenID Chief Operating Officer Dario Berini. “We are grateful that we have this capability and that it enables an extremely important federal system to continue to operate without putting operators and enrollees in close contact and potential danger.”

Innovative machines and technologies like the ID Capture Kiosk may certainly become a part of the fabric of our new normal. This is especially true given the recent OMB Memorandum 20-19, which states, “As our response to the national emergency for the coronavirus disease 2019 ("COVID-19") continues to evolve, the Administration directs that agencies utilize technology to the greatest extent practicable to support mission continuity.”

Having a machine that can eliminate person-to-person contact and issue credentials would certainly comply with the memorandum. I also asked if the kiosk could be used in other roles, such as to provide access to federal buildings, with human guards nearby but not in contact with visitors and employees. The answer was that it could. Because all of the biometric hardware and software is managed from within the machine, it can not only be quickly patched and updated as needed, but also tasked for other uses.

“The kiosk could be used by multiple programs with a standard touch screen selection being made to start the appropriate workflow,” said NextgenID CEO Mohab Murrar. “As an example, a single kiosk could contain the workflows for acquiring a passport, performing visitor management, issuance of a PIV credential for a civilian agency, issuance of a CAC for a new military member and to perform driver’s license tasks such as RealID enrollment, all without any person-to-person contact.”

Although the ID Capture Kiosk was designed without COVID-19 in mind, NextgenID is working on modifications in response to the virus. These include things like an anti-viral coating for the machine, providing special hand wipes and sanitizer for use by guests, and developing fully contactless sensors and data input devices. 

And as a direct nod to the virus, one of the first new modifications will be a temperature sensor to make sure that only healthy people are entering a federal facility. 

“As a result of COVID-19, we have begun investigating the integration of a non-contact temperature device that would provide the person being serviced with a readout of body temperature,” Murrar said. “This would be as a service to users, but also as a service for safeguarding facilities. Our engineering team has determined this can be accomplished in a short period of time.”

Deploying technology like the ID Capture Kiosk to support social distancing as part of our new world is a great way to keep us safe when we start to return to something akin to normal life. Although I couldn’t get a truly hands-on experience with the device without breaking my own quarantine, it looked really easy to use during my virtual demonstration. Perhaps innovative tools like it can make our world a little bit safer, and do it relatively unobtrusively. If this is a peek into our near future, then tomorrow may not be as bad as it seems.

John Breeden II is an award-winning journalist and reviewer with over 20 years of experience covering technology. He is the CEO of the Tech Writers Bureau, a group that creates technological thought leadership content for organizations of all sizes. Twitter: @LabGuys