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Over 200,000 employees of ministries and agencies will be able to sign electronic documents using a chip card with an encrypted key. This will give a signed electronic documents the same legal weight as paper documents with a handwritten signature, the federal Cabinet announced on 17 January
The measure builds on legislation making digital signatures legally binding, which came into force in Germany last year.
Employees will be supplied with chip cards and readers between now and 2005, when a broad-ranging project to put all possible government services online is due for completion. About a quarter of the 400 targeted services will require electronic signatures, the government said. The one-time set-up cost, including hardware, is estimated at €60 (£37) per employee, with annual maintenance costs of €20 to €40.
The new decision calls for the development of standards for the securing of online documents, e-mail, and electronic transactions. The government's goal is to implement the Industrial Signature Interoperability Specification (ISIS) and MailTrusT (MTT) standards, which are still under development.
"The federal administration expects that the interoperability standard ISIS-MTT will quickly establish itself on the market, and that appropriate products for each application, based on ISIS-MTT, will be available," a Cabinet statement said.
Some IT professionals were critical of the government for not being more specific about which technology it intends to use.
Industry association Bundesverband Informationswirtschaft, Telekommunikation und neue Medien (Bitkom) welcomed the decision, but complained that it makes only suggestions and offers no concrete directions for implementation.
"After the many rounds of voting, not much more remained than a description of the status quo," the group said. "The government thus unfortunately waters down its clear and praiseworthy aim of quickly and comprehensively outfitting the administration with security technology."
Bitkom called instead for a "citizens' card," with chip and electronic signature, for all Germans.