The U.S government is considering using online ID systems from Microsoft, Entrust, RSA, and VeriSign among others to track the identity of visitors to a dozen new federal Web sites launching later this year, a federal official said Friday.
Mark Forman, who oversees the federal government's $45 billion IT budget, said he is talking to the companies about how their online identification technologies might give agencies a standard way to let the general public access private information on the Web.
One of the sites, for example, will allow citizens to check social security benefits online. Forman is associate director of information technology at the Office of Management and Budget.
Although the agencies have yet to fully evaluate the ID systems, Forman said products and services like Microsoft's Passport and a forthcoming service from a coalition of companies called Liberty Alliance are among the technologies considered.
Forman and agencies involved in the new web sites will begin evaluating products in July. They plan to chose one by September, said Forman.
Passport is an online ID service that Microsoft introduced in 1999 to let people access multiple online accounts by signing in just once. Such systems, also available through America Online, reduce the need for people to keep track of multiple Internet IDs and passwords.
Privacy advocates have voiced concern, however, about potential abuses of private information by companies offering such services because they require people to provide personal data, such as their e-mail address and address, and can see what sites those people visit and when.
Analysts say the real issue is whether federal officials operate the ID system on their own computers or let a third party, such as Microsoft, operate and maintain the system on behalf of the agencies. The latter scenario, some say, would give technology companies too much access to private information about U.S. citizens.
"There should be appropriate security controls," said Jason Catlett, president of Junkbusters, a privacy advocacy group. "But mechanisms the government uses should not cause a windfall of data to Microsoft or any other corporation."
Forman said he didn't know if the government made a decision on that issue, adding that a set of federal information privacy standards will guide the decision.
"Privacy is a primary and significant policy for this administration," said Forman. "I don't want to shut the door on any product at this point in the process, but in the end our policy and our rules for protecting privacy are fairly stringent and that's what we're going to abide by."