Identity Management

First thing we do, let's kill all the passwords

broken lock

Federal agencies that provide electronic services to the public must walk something of a privacy tight rope, striking the technologically complicated balance between security and usability for their systems.

But Jeremy Grant, senior executive advisor for identity management at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, thinks he knows the first step toward finding a solution.

"Passwords aren't dead, but they should be shot," Grant said Nov. 14 at a federal identity and access management conference in Washington.

To provide online services to the public, agencies are weighing how to confirm users are indeed who they say they are, but not make it such a time-consuming process that those users shun the services entirely. Another password to remember, or a lengthy confirmation process to get services, could be enough to make citizens throw up their hands in frustration.

As agencies and private industry move to set up websites to provide electronic services for the public, Grant said, "the user experience sometimes gets lost in the discussion of IT."

"Citizens shouldn't have to manage a complex process to get in the door," he said, yet establishing and confirming users' identity is vital to government applications. Cyber criminals are resourceful.

Grant, who oversees the National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace (NSTIC) at NIST, coordinates the group's work with the private sector, advocacy groups, public sector agencies, and others to improve privacy, security, and convenience of sensitive online transactions with an aim of creating an overarching "identity ecosystem." Grant and other agency identity management experts at the event said government credentials that translate across agencies are key to that ecosystem.

NSTIC, established in 2011 by the White House, has had some success in its initial two years, said Grant. It has established a dozen pilot projects at tech companies and universities and has pushed federal agencies to become early adopters of identity management systems, such as the Federal Cloud Credential Exchange (FCCX) pilot project unveiled by the U.S. Postal Service in August.

Doug Glair, manager for digital identity services at USPS, said the hope is that restricting FCCX's integration to third-party providers who have been vetted through Federal Identity Credential and Access Management framework certification will instill faith in potential users.

"FCCX is a beacon for firms who want ID certified ID assurance," said Grant, who expects the first FCCX transaction to happen in early 2014.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a staff writer at FCW.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.

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Reader comments

Mon, Jun 22, 2015

In the article: "Grant said, "the user experience sometimes gets lost in the discussion of IT." " if instead of sometimes, I would posit frequently if not almost always. All too often, security is the most important priority and usability is left in the dust after the horses of design have been ridden into the sunset.

Sun, Nov 17, 2013

Thanks for the article, but it hardly adds anything to the sum total of knowledge on this subject. Some useful content would be of value.

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