Brussels wants e-identities for EU citizens

May 24, 2012 | Source: Euractiv

Ihre Papiere, bitte! One concept for an eID card. (Credit: Bruno Rouchouze/EUROSMART eID Working Group)

The European Commission plans legislation that would make electronic IDs compulsory.for all Europeans.

Neelie Kroes, the EU’s Digital Agenda Commissioner, will present by the beginning of June a new legislative proposal which aims “to facilitate cross-border electronic transactions” through the adoption of harmonized e-signatures, e-identities and electronic authentication services (eIAS) across EU member states, according to an internal document seen by EurActiv.

“A clear regulatory environment for eIAS would boost user convenience, trust and confidence in the digital world,” reads the paper. “This will increase the availability of cross-border and cross-sector eIAS and stimulate the take up of cross-border electronic transactions in all sectors.”

Brussels has long been trying to facilitate the emergence of a parallel system of electronic identification, on top of the the real-world existing documents. This has mainly been linked to the struggle for establishing a truly functioning single market, rather than on security grounds.


European Union über Alles (credit: Sébastien Bertrand/Wikimedia Commons)

Resistance from member states

Despite the EU’s efforts to increase the security of e-signatures and the confidence in the emergence of virtual identities, citizens and governments have been slow to adopt electronic IDs.

Indeed, e-signatures are still confined to a few sectors, such as universities, while most EU nations have not yet introduced electronic identity cards.

Even if chip-embedded passports are becoming the norm across Europe, e-ID cards have been adopted in only in a handful of countries —  Belgium, Estonia, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands. But there is no common system of mutual recognition among states using electronic IDs.

Perhaps more frustrating for the European Commission is that some member states like the United Kingdom do not even have paper identity cards, and the idea of adopting them causes widespread public opposition.

The UK briefly introduced ID cards during the second world war but abolished them afterwards. The use that the Nazi regime made of identity documents to single out Jewish people and send them into concentration camps has been a powerful argument against introducing ID documents across the Channel.

When Tony Blair’s Labor government discussed the idea of ID cards, a citizen movement sprang up overnight to block the plans.

The plan, to be unveiled in the coming days, is even more ambitious than the Commission’s previous legislative attempt, as Brussels  now wants to extend the electronic authentication to a number of services, beyond e-signatures, “like electronic seals, time/date stamps, etc,” reads an internal paper prepared by Kroes’ cabinet.

Data theft 

Kroes’ success is far from guaranteed. The concept of an electronic identity has in recent years been mainly associated with risks of identity theft and virtual fraud.

Officials say it is paramount that robust security mechanisms are put in place to guarantee the adoption of new electronic services. Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding has already suggested amending Kroes’ proposal to strengthen its data-protection obligations.

Among other things, Reding wants a 24-hour data breach notification to be part of the new regulation. If electronic identities are stolen or risk being wrongly used by non-authorized parties, the owners should be made aware of the data breach within 24 hours, argues the commissioner’s cabinet in an internal document seen by EurActiv.