INTERVIEW: Duane Blackburn on Biometrics and Government at FedID 2018

Every September the biometrics industry converges on the Federal Identity Forum & Exposition, otherwise known as FedID—the key identity technology conference for the federal government. After a year in Washington, DC, the conference has returned to Tampa, Florida for a week of high-level thought leadership, education and networking catered to the biometrics, government and identity technology industries.

FedID 2018

FindBiometrics will be at FedID this year, reporting live from the show floor. In advance of this major industry event, FindBiometrics Managing Editor Peter Counter spoke with Duane Blackburn, S&T Policy Analyst at MITRE, and  Chair of the FedID Planning Committee. The conversation begins with talk of the move back to Tampa and how the conference has evolved over the years, before going on to discuss how the mainstreaming of biometric technology has changed the programming at the event. The interview goes on to talk about what’s new on and off the exhibition floor, as well as how FedID’s content has been fine-tuned to best facilitate networking and education.

Read our full interview with Duane Blackburn, FedID Planning Committee Chair:

Peter Counter, Managing Editor, FindBiometrics: This year signals FedID’s return to Florida, what are the benefits of holding the conference in Tampa?

Duane Blackburn, S&T Policy at MITRE; Planning Committee Chair, FedID: The big deal for this conference is to get outside the DC area. We went into the DC area last year because going there every now and then makes sense, as you can introduce new people that don’t normally attend and help educate them on the identity issues. Most of the time we like to get outside of the DC area because when you are in DC there is always the call of the office – to take that call or attend that meeting or whatever – so you lose a lot of benefits of being away from the office. When we are away, for example, we have a whole host of very senior level Federal officials who are very devoted to three days of conversations with the private sector community on the future of identity, and when they are coming in and out that is just not possible. So, we get that benefit. Last year was DC, so this year it made sense to go somewhere else.

FindBiometrics: That makes perfect sense and it is a lovely place where you are holding it as well. How has the conference evolved over the recent years, as identity and biometrics have really taken center stage in the mainstream?

FedID: Absolutely. You’ve been around for a while so you really remember when we were really focused on biometrics. Way back in our history it was the only government activity that was focused on biometrics research, and so over the last 25 years or so it has really evolved. We see this as the government’s conference so it really starts there and tries to identify what it needs to be doing to meet the government’s needs. And as the government’s identity community evolves so does the conference. It has really evolved from originally a government only biometrics research conference, to a more public-private conversation around biometrics, to bleeding out into other issues. That is really where we are now: really looking at identity across the individual government agencies and trying to identify where the common priorities or concerns are among the federal agencies, and really trying to address those.

The other thing that has really changed over the years is that there is a real preponderance of other identity conferences. So again, this is the government’s own conference and there are other conferences out there for different purposes that didn’t exist 10-12 years ago, so it is a little less important for us to try to get out and hold the water, if you will, for all of identity. We can really focus more in on the government’s needs and labeling those conversations between the government and private sector on identity topics.

FindBiometrics: That speaks a lot to what I have seen in the FedID 18 agenda. It seems like the real deployments of identity and biometrics technology on all levels of government – federal, state, and local – have really energized some grounded conversations. There are sessions about data breaches, and Internet of Things, and standardization. Those all are particularly relevant. How have the real deployments that we are seeing now, specifically in biometrics, affected the way you are curating FedID’s programming?

FedID: We are taking it from the planning committee’s perspective, as opposed to myself or our partners dictating as to what is going on. So, we have planning committee representatives that are there predominately representing a federal department, and we have a couple of private sector academic folks on the team as well. But they all come from different perspectives and, starting in January of each year, we begin that conversation about what is happening and what is needed. We don’t get into really deep conversations, i.e. what the FBI is doing about a particular topic, but that is not our focus. It is trying to identify the common priorities, and then determine what we need to do as a planning committee to make sure the government gets what it needs on those common or priority topics.  

This year is a little bit different than what we have done in the past years, in that the planning committee decided that what we need more than anything this year is to take what we have done in the past and offer more two-way conversations. So, if you go back and look at prior FedID agendas it is quite a lot of multiple tracks of people onstage talking to an audience. That has been extremely beneficial for multiple years, and certainly what was needed for all those years, but the planning committee decided that this year we needed to narrow down a focus while still having some of those informational sessions that are out there. There are one-way presentations on really important and interesting things, but we are going to add in a component where we are enabling those two-way conversations in a much bigger way than we have done in the past. So, for ten of the biggest topics we will spend a couple of hours on each and roughly the first hour is setting the stage. We will have the federal police come in and talk about an issue and why it is important, what some of the initial thoughts are, or the reaction from the private sector, and rapid-fire lightning talk rounds. And then we will be split into smaller groups or workshops to really dive into the topic. There will be eight-person round tables with Feds at each table, and members from the private sector, and we will have some really great conversations about the topic and what the community can do to try to improve or try to establish itself better in those domains.

FindBiometrics: Fantastic! We do the FindBiometrics Year in Review every year and it seems like there is an increasing demand every single time for biometrics and identity education, so it is really great to see that proactive idea of educating everybody and getting that conversation going.

What were a few of the main areas that you identified for that and how does that selection process work for you?

FedID: They are all available online, and again it was all a part of that planning committee process where we all got together over a series of months, and got together every couple of weeks. The planning committee itself met every couple of weeks in between those meetings, and the members went back and talked with the communities they represented. For example, Tom Clancy was representing all of DoD and also we looked to him for most of IdAM-related topics. So, he would go back and discuss with those two communities and get some feedback and over a series of time it really crystallized on the series of topics we needed to focus on. A couple of them are enhancing collaboration among the public and private sector, identifying and verifying folks in a post-breach world, and some of the typical standbys: Homeland and National Security, and community access management, and identity theft.

Fairly easily we identified that those ten topics had the highest priority looking at the issue from an inter-agency perspective.

FindBiometrics: We are talking about it from a biometrics point of view but there is a lot of convergence between government and identity. I remember seeing you speak at the opening keynote of the 2014 Global Identity Summit and you spoke about the three pillars of identity as biographical, biological and contextual. And I’m curious if you see those aspects converging now, and how has that helped informed what is going on at FedID this year?

FedID: Absolutely. My background is more on the biometrics side as well, and I’ve been in that community since about 1999 but the message that we have had all throughout that time period, and it really is still true today, is that biometrics by itself isn’t truly beneficial or useful on its own; biometrics are one aspect of a broader, bigger identity system. After we went through that time period where we had to enhance the biometric capabilities, once we achieved that and the technology got to a point where it could then be used in identity systems, then the focus really shifted to, ‘okay, how can we best design these identity systems to meet the operational goals while not just protecting but enhancing privacy.’ That is really the evolution that has occurred because the technological capabilities. But by all means, all three of those are important components of an identity system. That is really where we are focusing.

FindBiometrics: Despite the broadening of identity systems, looking at the list of this year’s exhibitors there is really a massive biometrics presence. And you do expect that at an identity conference, but it really is something to behold when going through the list. Do you see biometrics playing a stronger role at this event than in previous years?

FedID: No, I don’t because for the majority of years this event was focused on biometrics, so it was abnormal to have something in there that wasn’t biometric focused. What I’m really seeing is that there is more of a proper balancing. I think biometrics has a little bit bigger role in some of the identity technologies now, honestly, because of what the historical nature of what this event is. It’s not to say that it is the most important, and that is what we are focusing on, but still a lot of the biometrics community gravitates towards this event where as some of the other things we are looking at IdAM, treasury, financial services, healthcare, these are somewhat new for this event to focus on. It doesn’t mean that they are less important, but people aren’t used to it like the biometric community is – going to FedID every September, and they are still learning that.

FindBiometrics: FedID is one of the best opportunities for identity experts to actually network with each other. What events do you have that will facilitate these industry connections and conversations this year? I know you already spoke about the more two-way conversations in the events, but are there any others?

FedID: The big part is the workshops, and we are really planning in dedicated time where there are smaller group conversations. So, that is one aspect. We are also doing something new at the event and outside the event. At the event, for the first time, we are directing a stage in exhibit hall area and allowing exhibitors to demonstrate, not market, but demonstrate their capabilities on stage to other folks at the exhibit hall. So, for people that may not want to come up and look at that new piece of machinery because they are new to the community and they don’t really want to look like new folks, that will be a good way for them to really understand that, and then allow them to have a more one-on-one conversation with those exhibitors. AFCEA is managing that process now for people to apply for a speaking slot.

Then there are always the sidebar conversations and the reception that take place every year at FedID, and those are outstanding networking opportunities being held in the exhibit hall as well.

But outside the event, as well, we have also been working on a couple of other things that would be worthy to mention. One of them is that a couple of months ago we piloted a meetup concept. So, earlier in the interview we talked about the need to get away from DC, but we still want to have some activities in the DC area. We piloted a meetup that was really on the education of the community – the community educating the public about identity capabilities and issues. And we had a couple hours in the DC area where a couple hundred folks got together and really talked about and came up with some decent ideas. All that seemed to be really well received and we will talk about it some more at FedID and then afterwards. We have a vision under the FedID umbrella of doing more of that throughout the year in the DC area.

And finally, we recognize that we can better leverage social media to better meet the government’s desires with FedID. Back when we started we put together a booklet of the presentations, that we handed out to attendees, and that really served as the sole reference item for the community members for the entire year. Well, that’s not the case anymore. We have the internet and stuff happens on a rapid-fire continuous basis, and we don’t want to wait until we have a meetup or an annual event. We want the community sharing that information and discussing it throughout the year. So, we are encouraging people to do that through Twitter using the hashtag #FedID, and we’ve also created a LinkedIN group under the FedID umbrella for folks to join and to share and discuss items in real time.

FindBiometrics: I think that is a fantastic way to keep the conversation going beyond the event.

FedID: I think it is important to highlight the fact that this is the government’s conference, that it is a community focused on the government’s needs. Most people get that, but for the people that don’t have experience with it, it kind of differentiates this event from other events, and I’m not saying it makes it better than other events, but it is really about meeting the government’s needs specifically. I think that is important.

I also think it’s important to use this as not a one-way presentation but their way to foster collaboration and exchange information back and forth, so it is two ways. The government does this event and puts the effort into it, and I think they recognize that the private sector has a large role in the government’s success, and they need to have conversations for that success to actually happen. And FedID the event, as well as the online stuff, is the primary mechanism that the government uses to have that discussion. So, we encourage everyone who’s interested to come.

FindBiometrics: Great. I’m personally looking forward to going, it’s always an educational experience for me. Thanks for taking the time to speak with me today Duane.

FedID: Thanks for the opportunity to chat with you.