Reach Uncle Sam On-Line

Frontier Technologies has launched a secure Internet program for businesses and individuals to communicate with the government

The futuristic vision of people communicating with the government over the Internet grew a bit clearer last month.

Frontier Technologies Corp., Mequon, Wisc., landed an exclusive contract with the government to jump-start the so-called "paperless society." The key to the technology is, of course, the security system.

The program, called Paperless Federal Transactions for the Public, is expected to convince people who don't use the Internet that it is a great, safe way to contact government for information on anything from social security benefits to Internal Revenue Service data. Once that trust is established, the same people will feel more comfortable using the Internet for electronic commerce, Frontier hopes.

"Once you've got the access, you get a sense that this is a way of life," said Erv Bluemner, vice president of engineering at Frontier. "You start with government, then you move to commercialization. Eventually commercial will overtake government."

The General Services Administration will decide how to distribute the access to the Internet sites. For example, kiosks may be placed in post offices and libraries. People would also have access at home or work. Vendors for the project will be announced later this month, according to GSA officials.

While the Frontier project is innovative, it is only one of a growing number of high-security Internet plans. As companies become more comfortable and experienced with the Internet, they are starting to pour more time and money into security and are more receptive to such projects.

In fact, there was a 25 percent jump in business security budgets from 1995 to 1996 according to a recent survey by the Yankee Group, Boston. The Internet is the No. 1 reason companies are increasing their budgets, followed by a surge of remote access users. Half of the businesses surveyed use external firewalls, and another 35 percent plan to use them.

"This survey shows that companies are worried about what expanded use of the Internet might bring and are taking steps to plan for that future," said Kimberly Lorencic of the Yankee Group.

The first phase of the Frontier program is already underway in which pilot testers will receive a key card to securely use World Wide Web applications. The users will then be able to exchange information with a Web server.

Phase II of the project will begin in fall 1996 and will add electronic messaging and commerce.

Frontier claims that the project, especially phase II, represents an important part of Vice President Al Gore's vision of the much-touted information superhighway.

The Federal Security Infrastructure Program, which was chartered in April 1995, is sponsored by the National Information Infrastructure Task Force and carried out through GSA.

Eventually, all of the American public will be able to conduct secure, paperless transactions with the federal government over the Internet, proponents claim.

Gore explained this vision in a "National Performance Review Re-engineering Through Information Technology" speech in September 1993: "Imagine this: A business woman walks into a post office, presents a picture ID and is given a public key. Using this key card, she electronically signs a federal contract and transmits it over the National Information Infrastructure to a contracting agency. This transaction is valid, secure and paperless," Gore said.

Frontier expects people to worry about the security -- part of its job is to convince the public that private data cannot be infiltrated by hackers.

Personal information cannot be accessed by outsiders for three reasons, the company said: the data is encrypted, the information never leaves the "smart token disk," and the U.S. Post Office requires proof of identification before people receive the disks. However, admitted Bluemner, "The only way this will achieve public acceptance is if agencies are invited in to help break the systems."

The companies surveyed by the Yankee Group said financial transactions over the Internet would increase 105 percent if security was not a problem.

In addition, only 14 percent of security problems were caused by external users. But 44 percent of the businesses had security infiltration from in-house users in the past year.

Individual users of the Frontier program would need a standard personal computer, Internet connection and floppy disk drive. Frontier provides the Web browser, which acts as a client, and the Web server, both of which are secure.

Frontier has experience winning government Internet contracts. Together with Zenith Data Systems and Government Technology Services Inc., Frontier has installed 300,000 licenses of "SuperTCP" in the Air Force, Navy and other government agencies.

"We've had a long history with government contracting," said Bluemner.

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