FIPS-201 Failure

By: Brian Rhodes, Published on May 28, 2012

The security market is hungry for money. With security budgets shrinking worldwide, any glimmer of untapped sales sends manufacturers and integrators scrambling. Nothing carries more impact that sweeping government regulations, and as a result, when FIPS-201 (PIV) demanded government entities reform their identity credential use, many providers jumped at the chance. Unfortunately, more than a decade later, the security industry is still waiting for race to begin.

In this update, we examine FIPS-201 intent, identify where it has gotten sidetracked, and discuss if it will ever be a significant source of security spending.

History

FIPS-201 aims to standardize physical and logical credentials into a single format:

  • Applies to over 5.7 million Federal Workers and Contractors
  • Provide official response to requirements defined in HSPD12
  • It is a joint US Department of Commerce / NIST project

When introduced, the US Government gave everyone 5 years to comply. After multiple deadline moves and delays, it still has not been universally adopted. This begs the question: "What went wrong?"

Barriers

The difficulty in pushing through FIPS-201 changes is not due to lack of awareness of the regulation itself. Rather, a host of other barriers have sidetracked adoption efforts:

  • Mass confusion understanding what FIPS-201 means: most people are waiting to be told how to be compliant.
  • Difficulty converging physical and logical identities: Getting parties to agree on compliance plans is tough.
  • Adoption required undeveloped technology: Compliant credentials and readers had to be designed first.
  • Unfunded mandates: Despite hard compliance deadlines, money was not budgeted to fund changes.
  • No enforcement beyond threats: While funding can be cut by non-compliance, real penalties are nonexistent.

Market Impact

A large integrator at PSA-TEC explained how his company geared up a major push for compliance in the government vertical, but various barriers prevented it from being a real market driver.

For example, a practical 'update' required to bring a 'legacy access control' system current to FIPS-201 standards is adopting credentials that meet ISO14443 communication standards. At the present time, this requires a type of card that mandates a 'read' range under 2 inches. In addition, FIPS-201 credential compliance requires a cryptographic 'self test' feature defined by FIPS-140. At current processing speeds, this activity takes almost a full second of continuous interface to 'read' a credential.

These requirements mean that government entities must replace all medium or long range proximity or magstripe technology readers protecting secured areas. In terms of real changes, this means a huge percentage of all installed card readers must be replaced. This does not even address the more specific data protection requirements applicable to the access control system itself, which may need to be substantially updated or forklift replaced to become compliant.

In spite of its far reaching impact, FIPS-201 compliance has not precipitated anything beyond incremental changes to most applicable access control systems. It is therefore difficult to gauge the overall effectiveness of FIPS-201. While directive's intent is smart, the case can be made that more fragmentation and confusion exist in the identity market now than before.

Future Market Driver?

The answer is: No, not it the way it was once expected. The lesson learned from this is that 'the cart cannot lead the horse'. No matter how sensitive the security market is in addressing these directives, if funding and enforcement are not concurrently made available they will be relegated into the heap of spineless legislation. Quite simply, government entities will not choose to spend money unless they are forced to or shown a tangible return on the expense. For many, FIPS-201 compliance simply becomes another check box on the '5-Year Strategic Plan' to be addressed at a later date.

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