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3. PIV System Overview

This section is informative. It provides an overview of the different components of the PIV system.

The PIV system is composed of components and processes that support a common platform for identity authentication across federal departments and agencies for access to multiple types of physical and logical access environments. The specifications for the PIV components in this Standard promote uniformity and interoperability among the various PIV system components, across departments and agencies, and across installations. The specifications for processes in this Standard are a set of minimum requirements for the various activities that need to be performed within an operational PIV system. When implemented in accordance with this Standard, PIV Cards and derived PIV credentials support a suite of authentication mechanisms that can be used consistently across departments and agencies. The authenticated identity information can then be used as a basis for access control in physical and logical access environments. The following sections briefly discuss the functional components of the PIV system and the lifecycle activities of the PIV Card.

3.1 Functional Components

An operational PIV system can be divided into three major subsystems:

PIV Front-End Subsystem
The PIV Card, card readers, biometric capture devices, and PIN input devices, as well as any derived PIV credentials used by the PIV cardholder. The PIV cardholder interacts with these components to gain physical or logical access to the desired federal resource.
PIV Issuance and Management Subsystem
The components responsible for identity proofing and registration, card and key issuance and management, and the various repositories and services required as part of the verification infrastructure, such as Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) directories and certificate status servers. This subsystem also manages the binding, issuance, and termination of derived PIV credentials as described in Section 2.10.
PIV Relying Subsystem
The physical and logical access control systems, protected resources, and authorization data. When discussed in the context of another external system or process, the relying subsystem is sometimes also referred to as the relying system; these terms are equivalent within this specification.

Figure 3-1. PIV System Overview

Diagram overview of the PIV system.

Figure 3-1 illustrates a notional model for the operational PIV system, identifying the various system components. The boundary shown in the figure is not meant to preclude FIPS 201 requirements on systems outside of these boundaries. See Section 3.3 for information about data flow and connections between components.

3.1.1 PIV Front-End Subsystem

The PIV Front-End Subsystem in Figure 3-1 consists of credentials and devices that are used during authentication and, as described in Section 3.1.2, for PIV issuance and management. The PIV Card takes the physical form of the [ISO 7816] ID-1 card type (i.e., traditional payment card) with one or more embedded Integrated Circuit Chips (ICC) that provide memory capacity and computational capability. The PIV Card is the primary component of the PIV system. The cardholder uses the PIV Card for authentication to access various physical and logical resources.

Additionally, derived PIV credentials increasingly play an important role as supplemental authenticators, especially in environments where use of the PIV Card is not easily supported. These AAL2 and AAL3 authenticators are not embedded in the PIV Card but, rather, are stand-alone or integrated in a variety of devices and platforms.

Card readers are located at access points for controlled resources to allow a cardholder to gain physical or logical access using the PIV Card. The reader communicates with a PIV Card to perform the authentication protocol and relay that information to the access control systems for granting or denying access.

PIN input devices can be used along with card readers when a higher level of authentication assurance is required. The cardholder presenting the PIV Card types their PIN into the PIN input device. For physical access, the PIN is typically entered using a PIN pad device; a keyboard is generally used for logical access. The input of a PIN provides a “something you know”1 authentication factor that activates2 the PIV Card and enables access to other credentials resident on the card that provide additional factors of authentication. A cryptographic key and certificate, for example, provide an additional authentication factor of “something you have” (i.e., the card) through PKI-based authentication.

Biometric capture devices may be located at secure locations where a cardholder may want to gain access. These devices depend upon the use of the biometric data of the cardholder, stored in the memory of the card, and its comparison with a real-time captured biometric sample. The use of biometric characteristics provides an additional factor of authentication (“something you are”).

3.1.2 PIV Issuance and Management Subsystem

The registration and issuance activities in Figure 3-1 start with identity proofing and registration, during which all information and documentation required for enrollment are collected, stored, and maintained. The collected information is subsequently used to personalize and issue the PIV Card, as well as to bind and issue derived PIV credentials as additional PIV authenticators.

The PIV Card is issued to the applicant when all identity proofing, registration, and issuance processes have been completed. Derived PIV credentials might also be bound, issued, and managed after these processes are complete.

The PIV Card issuance process focuses on the personalization of the physical (visual surface) and logical (contents of the ICC) aspects of the card at the time of issuance and maintenance thereafter. This includes printing photographs, names, and other information on the card and loading the relevant card applications, biometric data, and other data.

Card writers, which are similar to card readers, personalize and initialize the information stored on PIV Cards. Card writers may also be used to perform remote PIV Card updates (see Section 2.9.2). The data to be stored on PIV Cards includes cardholder information, certificates, cryptographic keys, the PIN, and biometric data. Biometric capture devices are also part of the identity proofing and registration process that support the PIV Issuance and Management Subsystem.

The PKI component provides services for PKI-based PIV credentials. This component is used throughout the lifecycle of PIV Cards and PKI-based derived PIV credentials—from generation and loading of asymmetric keys and PKI credentials, to usage of these keys for secure operations, to eventual reissuance or termination of the PIV Card and associated PKI-based derived PIV credentials. At the personalization phase, the PKI component issues and distributes the digital certificates for the keys generated on-card and keys generated for PKI-based derived PIV credentials. During use of the PIV credentials at authentication, the PKI component provides the requesting application with the certificate status information of the PKI credentials requesting access.

The enterprise IDMS serves as the central repository for the cardholder’s digital identities. It is where the relevant cardholder identity attributes are maintained. The IDMS creates the PIV identity account and associates the cardholder’s PIV Card and derived PIV credentials with the account. The account is maintained throughout the cardholder’s employment with the department or agency. Various Identity, Credential, and Access Management (ICAM)-related systems connect to the IDMS to request or update cardholder attributes. For example:

Different functions of the IDMS might be provided by different components within the department or agency, or outsourced to a shared service provider. For example, card management functions and recordkeeping may be provided by a different component from the component handling HR records or the component serving as an IdP. Regardless of how these components are implemented, they are collectively responsible for managing the identities of federal employees and contractors who are issued PIV credentials. It is ultimately the responsibility of the issuing department or agency to ensure that the relevant identity attributes, credentials, and records stored across these components are maintained properly and in a timely manner, preferably using technical means and automation whenever possible.

3.1.3 PIV Relying Subsystem

The PIV relying subsystem in Figure 3-1 includes components responsible for determining a particular PIV cardholder’s access to a physical or logical resource.3 A physical resource is the secured facility (e.g., building, room, parking garage) that the cardholder wishes to access. The logical resource is typically a network or a location on the network (e.g., computer workstation, folder, file, database record, software program) to which the cardholder wants to gain access.

The relying subsystem depends on authorization mechanisms that define the privileges (authorizations) possessed by entities requesting to access a particular logical or physical resource. Examples of this include an Access Control List (ACL) associated with a file on a computer system and a secure E-PACS control panel within a facility.

The PIV relying subsystem becomes relevant when the PIV Card or derived PIV credential is used to authenticate a cardholder who is seeking access to a physical or logical resource. Although this Standard does not provide technical specifications for this subsystem, various mechanisms for authentication are defined in Section 6 for PIV Cards and in [SP 800-157] for derived PIV credentials to provide consistent and secure means for performing the authentication function preceding an access control decision.

The relying subsystem identifies and authenticates cardholders either by interacting with the PIV Card using mechanisms discussed in Section 6 or by communicating with an IdP through a federation protocol as discussed in Section 7. Once authenticated, authorization mechanisms that support the relying subsystem grant or deny access to resources based on the privileges assigned to the cardholder.


3.2 PIV Card Lifecycle Activities

The PIV Card lifecycle consists of seven activities.4 The activities that take place during fabrication and pre-personalization of the card at the manufacturer are not considered a part of this lifecycle model. Figure 3-2 presents these PIV activities and depicts the PIV Card request as the initial activity and PIV Card termination as the end-of-life activity.

Figure 3-2. PIV Card Lifecycle Activities

Diagram of PIV Card lifecycle.

The seven card lifecycle activities are as follows:

PIV Card Request
The initiation of a request for the issuance of a PIV Card to an applicant and the validation of this request.
Identity Proofing and Registration
Verification of the claimed identity of the applicant, including verification that the entire set of identity source documents presented at the time of registration is valid, capture of biometric characteristics, and creation of the PIV enrollment record.5
PIV Card Issuance
Personalization (physical and logical) and issuance of the card to the intended applicant.
PKI Credential Issuance
Generation of PKI credentials and loading them onto the PIV Card.
PIV Card Usage
Use of the PIV Card to perform cardholder authentication for access to a physical or logical resource. Access authorization decisions are made after successful cardholder identification and authentication.
PIV Card Maintenance
Maintenance or update of the physical PIV Card and its data. Such data includes various card applications, PINs, PKI credentials, and biometric data.
PIV Card Termination
Permanent destruction or invalidation of the PIV Card and the data and keys needed for authentication to prevent any future use of the PIV Card for authentication.

3.3 Connections Between System Components

To perform authentication for logical or physical access using a PIV Card or a derived PIV credential directly, the credential is verified and attributes from the PIV identity account are provided to the relying subsystem. The connections and data flows between these components are shown in Figure 3-3.

Figure 3-3. PIV System Connections

Diagram of connections between components in a PIV system.

While it is possible to directly accept a PIV Card issued by another agency, the recommended interoperability mechanism for most agencies is to use a federation protocol, as discussed in Section 7. In this method, the PIV cardholder authenticates to their IdP, which is part of the PIV Issuance and Management Subsystem, using their PIV Card or derived PIV credential. The IdP verifies the credential and determines the attributes associated with the PIV identity account. The IdP then creates an assertion that is sent to the relying subsystem. The RP validates the assertion from the IdP, but the RP never sees the credential or authentication at the IdP. The connections and data flows between these components are shown in Figure 3-4.

Figure 3-4. PIV System Federation Connections

Diagram of connections between components in a federated system using PIV credentials.

While this Standard makes no requirements on when to apply direct or federated authentication mechanisms, there are some natural mappings. For example, physical access systems tend not to use federation protocols and instead rely on direct authentication. Also, many derived PIV credentials can only be verified by their issuer and are therefore better suited for use as part of a federation protocol.

  1. For more information on the terms “something you know,” “something you have,” and “something you are,” see [SP 800-63]

  2. Alternatively, a biometric on-card one-to-one comparison can be used to activate the PIV Card. 

  3. The cardholder may authenticate with the PIV Card or a derived PIV credential. 

  4. The lifecycle activities of derived PIV credentials are described in [SP 800-157]

  5. In some other National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) documents such as [SP 800-63A], registration is referred to as enrollment