In the last week of March 2020, the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) issued a new policy focused on giving government agencies new flexibilities as agencies move to telework due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This includes letting agencies use other types of authentication outside of the smart card/Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) combination, which is the government’s standard.
If you don’t work for the government, you might wonder “Why should I care about this?” Although the memo is specific to government agencies, companies across industries that use smart cards and/or PKI for authentication are going through the same struggle: how to keep their data systems secure while working with remote teams.
Key Takeaways from the Memo
Organizations face three problems as they move to telework:
- While many employees have employer-provided laptops that can tie into organizations’ systems via a VPN, not all of those VPNs support smart card login.
- Many employees only have desktops in their workplace and working from home means they are likely using personal devices that may not support a smart card.
- For employers who use Personal Identity and Verification (PIV) smart cards, issuance of these cards requires an in-person proofing and issuance process. While that has set a high bar for security, it's not practical in a crisis where it's not safe to bring people into a face-to-face setting.
This memo gives government agencies some much-needed flexibility to go beyond PIV/PKI combinations for authentication purposes. While most organizations don’t need to comply with government policies, the following sections of the memo provide solid guidelines that should be followed by any organization wanting to maintain a high level of security:
- Per Section 7, “Agencies are able to make a risk determination and issue an alternate credential/authenticator for PIV-eligible personnel due to the inability to collect biometrics (e.g., fingerprints), until biometric processing is feasible” when it’s not possible to enroll someone for a PIV or issue them one.
- Per Section 8, “If agencies are unable to issue a PIV credential, they should be prepared to issue an alternate credential authenticator for physical and logical access.”
- Section 9 discusses steps agencies should take when a PIV credential is not in use.
Transitioning to PKI2FIDO
Among the silver linings of this worldwide pandemic is that it has brought the opportunity to introduce significant operational changes in your organization without major resistance from employees; after all, we’re all having to adapt to new ways of working.
We recognize organizations and government agencies are unlikely to duplicate their previous efforts to deploy alternative authentication and data security approaches after having invested hundreds of millions of dollars in vetting humans in the process of issuing PIV/CAC/National ID and similar credentials.
Therefore, StrongKey has created PKI2FIDO, a free and open-source web application to help organizations deploy Fast Identity Online, version 2 (FIDO2)-based authentication. Among the benefits of moving beyond PKI or replacing PIV authentication with PKI2FIDO are the shorter implementation time and lower price.
Based on the free and open-source standards of the FIDO Alliance, PKI2FIDO is a single-page application that enables holders of X.509 digital certificates (implemented in the PIV cards and the CACs) to strongly authenticate with their digital certificate to the PKI2FIDO web application and register a FIDO Universal 2nd Factor (U2F) security key with a FIDO server in their enterprise.
How PKI2FIDO Works in Practice
Going through the implementation process of PKI2FIDO as a new authentication solution may sound daunting at first, but it doesn’t have to be. Here’s a step-by-step view of a deployment:
- Deploy a FIDO2 Certified server in your data center.
- Announce a set of approved FIDO Authenticators, providing the Authenticators to relevant employees.
- Modify your website to call PKI2FIDO.
- User brings their FIDO Authenticator(s) to their office and logs in to your website using the PIV card with absolutely no need to have any face-to-face interaction.
- User registers the FIDO Authenticator with the FIDO Certified server.
- User can now go home and use their personal device to securely authenticate using the FIDO protocol to your organization’s website.
PKI2FIDO allows an organization to enable its users to strongly authenticate to the web application with their smart card/digital certificates, and to register one or more FIDO security keys on their enterprise FIDO server using one or more FIDO U2F Authenticators. Once Authenticators are registered, they can be used to strongly authenticate to FIDO-enabled web applications supported within their enterprise/agency.