Sun courts Canadian government with smart card plan

There was an underlying reason for Scott McNealy’s recent visit to Ottawa — to woo the Canadian public sector into integrating Sun Microsystems’ smart-card technology into the existing security systems of federal departments and agencies.

Following a keynote address to hundreds of Ottawa’s high-tech heavyweights, McNealy and his staff met with government officials to discuss about the merits of Sun Java-powered smart cards, the government’s network security, and the “”leveraging of Sun’s international experience,”” as well as “”how (that experience) can be applied to the Canadian market,”” said Caroline Verboon a Sun spokeswoman.

The meeting comes on the heels of a joint announcement made by California-based Sun and EDS Canada which outlines how the two companies will collaborate on “”addressing the growing demand for smart card solutions”” within Canadian governments.

“”We’ve got some targeted (government) departments in Canada,”” confirmed Stephen Heckbert, a spokesman for EDS Canada, though he would not specify which ones. “”We’ve worked with (Sun) to develop a solution where if someone requires an ID card or some form of more secured access … we can easily implement a solution that’s pretty scalable (to government departments).””

Just prior to Sun’s meeting with government officials late last week, McNealy said his company had “”won the battle of Java on the smart card, Java on wireless devices, and Java in the server room. Every app server on the planet runs Java except Microsoft.””

EDS and Sun plan to work with ActivCard, a smart card developer based in California on the project. The cards incorporate Sun Java card technology, which is capable of storing large amounts of personal information on an integrated microprocessor chip.

Last week, Sun executives pointed out that the U.S. Department of Defence already uses the cards for its security and authentication systems. Heckbert added Sun’s Java-powered cards are capable of having a biometric component capable of hand geometry, or fingerprint and iris scans.

Heckbert also recognized Citizenship and Immigration Minister Denis Coderre’s interest in smart card technology when he proposed to adopt a national biometric ID card for all Canadians earlier this year.

“”It’s that kind of (national biometric ID card) where we might have some capabilities for (the public sector),”” said Heckbert. “”But I can’t say if that’s an active pursuit we’re on.””

Following Coderre’s proposal, biometric smart-card technology sparked controversy in the House of Commons and across the country. Worries over privacy violations were strongly voiced by opposition and Liberal MPs, as well as concerned citizens.

Meanwhile, smart cards that rely on PIN numbers are already in limited use by some governments and businesses. The government’s computer authentication systems for government online services rely largely on password-dominated public-key infrastructure (PKI) and digital-signature systems.

Eric Hebert, a principal consultant with Fujitsu Consulting in Montreal, has said “”there is an interest (within the public and private sector) in replacing the old user-name/password”” security system.

Facing increasingly complex identification systems involving multiple passwords that need to be changed frequently, IT managers are looking to make their work — and users’ experiences — easier to handle. Implementing a biometric system not only widens the reach of user access without additional complexity, but also boosts protection for “”critical”” applications, Hebert said.

Government spokespeople did not return phone calls Monday.

Earlier this year, an iris-scanning pilot program called CANPASS – Air was launched at the Vancouver airport for frequent flyers. The pilot – which is geared toward speeding up the entry of air travelers – will be introduced to other major Canadian airports in coming months.

Also last week, Steven Milunovich, a prominent analyst at Merril Lynch & Co., sent an open letter to Sun’s board and McNealy himself which said the CEO needs “”a makeover”” and the company needs to cut up to 7,000 more workers and drop out of some businesses. Otherwise, Milunovich predicted Sun’s ultimate value will only be its customer list for another tech company that buys it.

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