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Smart card readers for the iPhone and iPad

Joseph Roth | July 11, 2013
Flexible PKard Reader and elegant Tactivo bring smart card authentication to your favorite mobile device

BYOD becomes a bit more complicated when you work in an environment that requires stronger forms of authentication than a username and password combination. A close inspection of the iPhone or iPad reveals neither a fingerprint sensor nor a smart card reader, for example. Fortunately, vendors such as Thursby Software and Precise Biometrics have rushed in to fill the void.

Thursby Software's PKard Reader and Precise Biometrics' Tactivo support the major standard smart card formats including the CAC (Common Access Card) used by the U.S. military and DOD (Department of Defense). I tested the products by using an iPhone 4S and an iPad 2, both running iOS 6.1, to access a number of military and DOD websites that require CAC authentication.

Until the PKard Reader and Tactivo devices arrived for the iPhone and iPad, military and DOD personnel had to use either a PC or Mac to remotely access CAC-secured sites, even for Webmail, travel, and unclassified administrative tasks. As prices fall, these workers will be sorely tempted to buy one of these readers — and so will many iPhone and iPad users in private sector companies that require smart card authentication.

Common capabilities and limitations
Thursby's PKard Reader and Precise Biometrics' Tactivo worked as advertised, allowing me to successfully check email on both the Navy Marine Corps Email and the Army Email AKO sites.

Note, however, that the Safari browser on the iPhone and iPad does not support smart card authentication. In order to facilitate browsing of websites that authenticate using smart cards or CACs, Thursby's PKard Reader and Precise Biometrics' Tactivo both include Thursby's free PKard Reader app. (Military and DOD and government personnel will like that the PKard Reader app lets you bookmark commonly used CAC-required sites, organized in service favorite folders such as Navy Sites, Army Sites, Air Force Sites, DOD Sites, Marine Corps Sites, Coast Guard, and Federal Government.)

It can be difficult to use Webmail on the iPhone (less so on the iPad) due to the limited screen real estate. It would be preferable to use the regular email app, but this is not an option provided by the DOD today, as it would require the DOD to provide a VPN mail service server. While the PKard Reader and Tactivo devices are capable of supporting direct access to mail servers, I was only able to test access to Webmail in my environment. Potential buyers in the military and government should be aware they'll be restricted to using iOS-compatible Webmail and Web apps only.

All potential buyers should note that the PKard Reader app does not overcome other limitations of Apple's Safari browser. Smart card or CAC-secured websites that employ technologies such as Flash or Java that work fine on a full PC will not work on an iPhone or iPad — with or without the PKard Reader app. The Defense Travel System (DTS) is an example of this limitation. DTS simply will not work due to the fact that its designers did not plan for iOS compatibility. For users of DOD websites, it's Webmail only and no mobile travel planning for now.


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