Europe speeds up electronic ID plans

The EU may introduce a standard health insurance card for all member states next year, followed by passports containing a biometric ID chip

EU citizens may be hit by a double whammy of electronic idenfication measures over the next two years with the introduction of health insurance ID cards across Europe and a new EU passport embedded with a wireless chip carrying biometric information.

On 1 June, 2004, the European Commission is to launch the first phase of introducing a health insurance card that will significantly reduce the paperwork required before a European citizen can receive medical treatment in another member country, according to a recent proposal. Additionally, a new EU passport containing biometric data about its holder has been pencilled in for introduction in 2005, a few months after the US makes biometric passports for non visa-holders compulsory.

The original proposals for improving passport security were submitted in September 2001 and adopted by the European Parliament in regulation 334/2002, five months later. However, the latest proposal set out by the European Commission not only intends to speed up the roadmap set out in regulation 334/2002, but is designed to further improve the security of EU passports to aid the detection of individuals using forged or stolen documents. This will require an amendment to an earlier regulation that set the requirement for a uniform passport format for all EU member countries.

The proposal recommends that passports contain a digital image of the holder so that facial recognition technology can be used to aid the identification process. As a secondary measure, two fingerprints of the passport holder would also be stored in a wireless chip that is embedded within the document.

The proposal states: "The most appropriate storage medium is a contactless microchip. The microchip is necessary for the storage of the biometric information and the security code (PKI digital signature)". The document states that the chips should have a minimum of 32KB of storage, but recommends 64KB so that member states will be free to add unspecified "alphanumeric data".

According to the proposal, fingerprints were preferred over iris scans because most EU countries already maintain extensive databases using fingerprint information, so that background checks on individuals would be a relatively simple process.

As for the health insurance card, there are already a number of joint health schemes in operation, one example is between Germany and the Netherlands. Since 2000, the two countries have issued virtually identical health cards to allow their citizens to receive treatment from either country. The proposed EU-wide health card is designed to eventually replace at least five different application forms that currently have to be filled in by EU citizens when studying, travelling, working or receiving health care in member states.

Full details of the proposals for the EU health insurance card and biometric passport are available on the EU Web site.