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The complicated rise of the electronic identity card in Europe

© Peter Morrison/AP/SIPA

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Fri, 06/04/2012 - 13:08

While France is planning to introduce the electronic Identification Card soon, other European countries have already adopted it. But between Estonia, Italy or Latvia, there are some stark disparities.

The National electronic Identity carD (eID) does not exist yet in France but it is already fuelling a heated controversy. Last month, the French assembly voted in favour of the new card with an integrated chip. It should be made available by 2014 and will contain biometrical data, such as the fingerprints of its owner.

Different organisations, including the French League of Human Rights, immediately condemned the eID, calling it “an infringement of human rights".

In the French magazine l’Express, Jean-Claude Vitran, an activist from the League, explained that “the cards are really not secure enough, as they can be read from a distance by magnetism or infrared rays

The French government argues that the eID will help fight against impersonations - 200 000 cases of which are recorded in France every year - but some organisations are worried about the commercial exploitation of data and the creation of a database with the fingerprints and personal information of every French citizen.

Some other countries have already adopted a similar identity card. Even if a European directive regulating the electronic signature was adopted in 1999, there is no pressure from Brussels to make the member states trade their old card for the eID.

On that matter each country is on its own rhythm. The eID contains biometric data in only four countries : Italy, Portugal, Spain and Germany.

Belgium

Belgium was one of the first European country to introduce the electronic identity card. After a period of experimentation in 2001, the kingdom started using the card in 2004. Since 2009 its possession is mandatory for all Belgian citizens.

A national database containing information on every citizen was already in place prior to the introduction of the eID, so there was not much of a debate when the card was introduced, even if the Belgian League of Human Rights voiced some concerns at the time. But unlike in France, each citizen can check online what information the government has on them.

The Belgian eID offers an increasing variety of uses. It can be used by the different Belgian administrations. Citizens can use it to pay their taxes online, and soon, it will be possible to vote online. Belgium has even announced that it will be possible to use the eID as a mean of payment in the near future.

Estonia

Known as a technological pioneer in Europe, Estonia adopted the eID in 2002. Each citizen had to get the card when it was introduced and today almost 90% of the population (1 million people) owns one. The country seems to be the one using the electronic identity card to its fullest potential.

In Tallinn, it is possible to use the card as a means of transportation. The Estonian eID can also be used to be identified on some newspapers' websites. It is even possible to vote for the national elections with the card and two passwords. During the last parliamentary elections, 80.000 people voted that way.

A success that the Estonian Economy Minister would like to see reproduced across the European Union.

The eID should work the same way in every EU member State. The digital era is only at its very beginning”

he said.

Italy

The first Italian eID was introduced in 2001. Even though its aim is to replace the 40 million paper cards, only 83 city are currently authorised to deliver it. And even in those towns, the card is not mandatory.

Eleven years after its launch, the Italian eID is still waiting to be popularised and it is still used only by a few cities. The government was planning to create different online services related to the eID, but this project is still very much up in the air and the future of the Italian eID remains uncertain.

Like the French card, the Italian eID stocks its user’s fingerprints directly on its chip.

Finland and Sweden

Finland is one of the European pioneers when it comes to the eID. Introduced in 1999, the card is considered a failure by the Finnish government. In 2009, a committee even recommended its cancellation because it had only been adopted by 300.000 people (of the 5 million living in Finland)

Sweden is in a similar situation. With a cost of 400 SEK (42 euros), the card is currently used by only 1% of the population, ie 100.000 people.

The main explanation for this failure is the fact that it is not mandatory for citizens in both countries to own the card. People often choose to use either their drivers' licence or their passport (which only costs an extra 2 euros compared to the eID) when they want to travel.

In both countries, the eID does not stock any biometric data.

Portugal 

In Portugal, the electronic identification card replace 5 different cards : the identity card, the tax card, the social security card, the voting card and the social services card. Much like in Italy, the user must give their fingerprints to the government to get an eID. The country also created a database putting together all of its population's biometric data.

2.5 millions cards are currently in circulation in the country. Portugal tried to simplify the relations between its administration and its citizens as much as possible , and now the card can be use for a large variety of services online.

Germany and Latvia 

The eID was recently introduced in both countries.

In Germany, after a decade of trials, the first electronic identity card was delivered in 2010. The government is planning to replace all of the old cards by 2020. The chip on the card stocks biometric information.

Latvia is the last European country to launch its own eID. Since last Monday, Latvians can exchange their old Identity card with the new one for only 10 euros. Following Estonia's lead, the government is planning to introduce possible uses online.

Austria and Spain also have their own eIDs and the UK has been discussing it for a few years.

Maybe the European project Stork, started in 2009, will encourage more countries to adopt the eID. Its aim is to harmonise the different eIDs in the member states to make administrative processes easier for EU citizens. 




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