Skip to main content

European initiative for a Citizen digital ID solution

Exploitable results

Proving who we are is an all too common feature of modern life. As we move from one country to another we show our passport; to access welfare services we present a social security card. And to vote we need a polling card. How can it be that in this electronic age our identity still depends so much paper? Electronic identity (e-ID) cards offer a technological solution and are already being introduced in several European countries. IST's EUCLID project is working to establish interoperable systems for e-IDs across Europe to help fast track the rollout of national e-ID initiatives. Services, security, savings! An e-ID card looks very much like a standard credit card and is just as easy to use. Its small chip is able to store the personal data needed to identify and authenticate the owner's access to online services both public and private. These comprise name, date of birth, health insurance details, tax code and other relevant data. The benefits of e-ID cards are clear for all to see. They allow businesses and government organisations to improve electronic interactions with their clients while reducing administrative costs. For citizens and service providers, e-ID improves the convenience, confidentiality and security of any transaction while eliminating the need to complete time-consuming paperwork. "Basically the advantages for the citizen and the government are the same", says Ulla Westermarck, the EUCLID Project Manager. "We call them the 3S's - services, security and savings. E-ID allows users to access services anywhere and at anytime, in a more secure and reliable way while saving both time and money." But if e-ID is so great why aren't we using it already? According to Ulla Westermarck, the main barrier to mass deployment is lack of critical mass. "The savings from e-ID systems are only achieved when everyone is using them but for this to happen we need a much wider range of e-services available. Although the technology is there, in general government services aren't yet geared up to support these sort of transactions with citizens." The demand element is lacking too, she says. "People are often concerned about privacy. And rightly so. But in practice e-ID empowers people, since the individual decides when and where to give access to the information on the card. It's like volunteering to give a fingerprint. As experiences of e-ID grow across Europe people will become much more accepting and will start to see electronic ID as a 'must-have'." e-ID in action Various national schemes are already being rolled out. One of the earliest initiatives was in Finland, which began issuing national e-ID cards in 1999. Costing 29 euro and valid for three years, the card can be used as a travel document in 19 European countries and can also be used for online banking and insurance services. To date around 10,000 cards have been issued. Another frontrunner is Belgium, where the government recently launched a six-month pilot scheme for national e-IDs. If successful the scheme will be rolled out to over 500 municipalities over the next five years. Italy began issuing national e-IDs in March 2001 and plans to cover all 50 million Italians. Austria, France, Spain and Switzerland are all at various stages of decision-making on national cards and Germany is conducting a feasibility study. Estonia appears to be the most advanced. National e-IDs are now mandatory for all Estonian citizens and resident foreigners over 15 years of age. More than 150,000 cards have been issued since the law was introduced in January 2002 and the scheme is well on the way to national coverage. Despite these successes, Ulla Westermarck sees cause for concern. "Europe leads the world in smart card technology but risks falling behind in its use. For instance, Malaysia is already issuing a national ID card that combines electronic ID, biometrics for authentication and applications such as an e-purse. We have to move much faster. The technology is ripe and ready to use but the practices and references are fragmented." Smartcards across Europe For e-IDs to really take off in Europe they need to be usable across borders, which in turns calls for common systems and approaches. That's where EUCLID comes in. The initiative has brought together interested parties, such as certification authorities, software vendors, policy-makers and e-ID service providers, to develop a set of minimum requirements for e-ID cross-border solutions. These requirements are set out in EUCLID's White Paper on Electronic Identity. The White Paper is independent of any specific e-ID scheme. Rather it focuses on the technical framework necessary to support interoperable smart card e-ID systems as well as current practices in establishing e-identity in EU countries and key legal and technical issues for future e-ID evolution and implementation. Besides semi-technical issues and international standards, the White Paper takes full account of the EU's 1999 directive on electronic signatures. Since implementation of e-ID at national level is governed by the EU's advanced regulatory framework for data protection, legal issues are also addressed. EUCLID's experts expect to deliver a final version of the White Paper to the European Commission in June 2003. This work on electronic identity is part of eEurope Smart Cards, an initiative to promote the use of smart cards in all areas of the economy and society. One of its key outcomes has been to specify a technical infrastructure for European-wide smart cards, known as the Open Smart Card Infrastructure for Europe (OSCIE). Twice a year experts from the Member States meet to discuss relevant technical issues. The future? So what future for e-ID cards? According to Ulla Westermarck, the momentum for their implementation is gathering pace. "We have the technology, we know the infrastructure requirements and we have started the standardisation process. What we lack is the legal harmonisation and pressure from the top". But this too is set to change. For instance, a EU Communication issued in February 2003 proposes to introduce a pan-European health insurance card by 2008. The card will be mandatory across the EU and will require the Member States to harmonise the relevant legislation. As the EU grows to 25 countries, more and more of us are taking advantage of the opportunities for travel and business. Electronic IDs not only offer a practical means for individuals to move freely and have easy access to e-services, they will also help build our sense of European identity. Promoted by the IST Results Service