By Marisa Torrieri, Contributing Editor
While some countries continue to debate national ID cards, citizen smart card initiatives in some European countries are well underway. Technology players are working to secure contracts to provide services to card-holding citizens, many with an eye on what’s happening in Belgium – the European nation that is seen as the model for smart-card deployment.
Despite a few initial delays, Belgium is becoming the first European country to standardize the electronic identity card. By the end of 2009, every Belgian citizen will be required to own an e-ID card –11 million cards, according to most counts. To meet this requirement, close to 10 million cards will be issued to the country’s citizens over the next three to five years.
“Belgium is seen as the place where e-ID serves as an important tool in the promotion of knowledge,” says Gilbert Leung, a sales manager with ACS, a Hong Kong-based manufacturer of card readers that is providing more than 100,000 smart card readers for the Belgium project.
“Being one of the first countries to have implemented a national ID card, Belgium is a good place where information about national e-ID systems could be discussed. Other corporations, including Microsoft and Adobe, see Belgium as a breeding ground for EID applications,” Mr. Leung says. A number of companies, including Zetes and Sun Microsystems, also have big stakes in the European nation’s smart initiatives.
But the initial success in Belgium hasn’t come without its challenges.
To many, Belgium is a leader not only for implementing the national ID program, but for getting past initial challenges … and for the most part convincing the wary public that government-issued IDs won’t disrupt personal privacy.
“Belgium is a very forward-thinking country,” says Neville Pattinson, of the newly merged Gemalto (formerly Gemplus and Axalto), who has been working with smart cards in the U.S. and overseas since 1996. Each country, adds Mr. Pattinson, “(has) unique challenges balancing politics and citizen privacy.”
Many national identity schemes are undergoing huge public policy debates, and only when citizens’ trust has been established the programs will move forward.
In the U.K., concerns over personal privacy issues (and suspicions over government motivations) have slowed plans for national smart-ID cards. The U.S., with The Real ID initiatives, is now determining the next generation of state government issued ID cards, and whether or not they contain smart-card technology, notes Mr. Pattinson.
Still other projects struggle based on citizen acceptance, be that due to privacy concerns, security issues, or simple consumer demand. “Other smart card projects in Europe are experiencing some problems,” explains Mr. Leung. “The French health card system project is receiving lots of criticism because of some security issues. As for the German health card project, they are still in the testing phase. They have yet to start implementing in fear of very low usage rates in the future.”
The Belgium e-ID program, however, “has been a very successful program in addressing the needs of the government for incorporating several applications for identity services. They’ve managed to combine several applications on their e-platform,” says Mr. Pattinson. “Without the chip they couldn’t have done that, so the benefit of having a secure computing device has enabled that capability.”
But for now, while contractors line up at the foot of Europe, waiting for a chance to get in on the action, it’s still very much a game of wait-and-see, when it comes to the pace of deployment – with technology, and its ability to meet current needs of citizens elsewhere.
“In embarking on any credentialing program, you need to define the applications you will deploy to provide benefit to the government and the citizens,” says Mr. Pattinson. “Are they trying to reduce document fraud, identity theft? Increase the security to online applications? These are all applications that smart card technology securely enables.”
The Web site, http://eid.belgium.be/, has a complete list of the electronic identity card’s functions, as well as vendors providing various applications for use.