The UK is to spearhead a £13m pilot project covering 13 European countries to test the interoperability of several electronic identity verification systems. This may eventually give citizens and businesses access to e-government services across the EU, if governments can agree to accept one another's vetting processes.
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"It is about the eventual pan-European recognition of electronic IDs," said a spokesman for the Identity and Passport Service.
The project, called Stork, is expected to run for three years. It is part of the programme of work EU ministers recently agreed to in Lisbon. The consortium is likely to include Austria, Belgium, Estonia, France, Germany, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and the UK.
"It is still in early stages and is very much exploratory work," the spokesman said. "The UK Government Gateway has huge experience and expertise to bring to this work and is working closely with the IPS who lead on ID policy,"
Researchers will explore existing operational electronic gateways and try to overcome technical and business process issues to provide e-Government services cross-border, he said. "It is not about a change in services or entitlements it is only looking at existing programmes to examine what would be needed to establish secure systems for mutual recognition of national electronic identities."
Roger Dean, executive director of eema, the European e-identity and security association, is responsible for publicising the initiative. He said the European Commission believes Europe will be more competitive and efficient if citizens are freer to travel, find work, access health services, buy property, register for schools and make it easier for small and medium enterprises to set up and do business in any member state,
It will also make it easier for governments to know with whom they are dealing. Dean said some nations already used national identity cards as passports. "However, Stork is not intended to replace passports in the short term," he said.
The scheme will also test third party "identity providers". These are trusted non-government agents that would do all or some of the initial registration, supply the credential (e.g. an electronic ID card), and authenticate identities on request, Dean said. Such an entity could be a bank or credit reference agency.
Dean said the scheme is presently "only 50% funded" national governments and industry are expected to chip in the rest. Discussions so far with government system developers showed they were all focused on solving perceived national problems than in authenticating citizens of other countries, he said.
Dean added that EU-wide rules on privacy and data protection were central to Stork. But he acknowledged that data sharing agreements such as the Prum Treaty, which allows European police forces to share data, including DNA profiles, on criminal suspects, or the US-EU deal on supplying passenger name records of travellers to the US, may abrogate many existing safeguards.
Another key issue will be the extent to which each government will accept the others' registration and authentication processes. The present minimum standard requires a face to face meeting between the authenticator and the subject.
Dean said some large Dutch companies were already accepting Belgian ID cards as proof of employees' identity. This was because they trusted the process for issuing the cards.