State Department employees use biometric card for computer access

Published 12 February 2009

45,000 State Department employees now use biometric smart cards to log on to the department’s unclassified network; the department hopes that, soon, a similar log on procedure will be used for the classified network as well

Thousands of U.S. State Department employees now use smart cards that contain biometrics to access the department’s unclassified computer network. State Department officials say more than half of the about 45,000 users of the department’s unclassified network now use cards provided through the Biometrics for Logical Access Development and Execution public key infrastructure program to log onto workstations.

FCW’s Ben Bain quotes Jarrod Frahm, who manages the BLADE program, to say that efforts will continue to expand the program, particularly overseas where logistics can be more complicated. Frahm discussed the program’s status today at the Institute for Defense and Government Advancement’s Second Annual Biometrics for National Security and Defense conference in Vienna, Virginia.

Bain writes that participants in BLADE, which started as a pilot program in 2003, are vetted by diplomatic security. They provide a fingerprint from each hand that is then stored on a personal identification verification smart card. Employees use that card to log onto their workstations where they are asked to give a digital fingerprint to verify their identities. If the sign-on is unsuccessful after 10 tries, the card becomes inactive, and employees have to re-enroll in the program. “The beauty of it is that it makes the network more secure, not only because we’re authenticating biometrically, but in most cases when you pull the card out, it automatically locks the workstation,” Frahm said.

Officials are hopeful that a similar authentication program will be available in the near future for users of the department’s classified network. Frahm said the department also is working on an application to allow employees to assign public key infrastructure certificates to documents created by using Microsoft Office. He said BLADE was working to comply with the smart card requirements of Homeland Security Presidential Directive 12. That directive requires agencies to give federal employees and contractors interoperable smart cards to be used for physical access to buildings and eventually for access to systems.