UK lags behind Estonia in ID card technology

The UK's ID card proposal fails to include facilities for a digital signature, which puts Britain behind Estonia and at least six other EU member states

The UK's ID card proposals are technically years behind the systems being implemented in at least six European countries, including Estonia and Austria.

The UK government last week launched a trial of biometric ID cards; the fear of terrorism seems to have pushed the prime minister to fast-track the project for a national scheme as soon as possible. However, unlike Italy, Belgium, Finland, Estonia, Austria, Denmark and the Netherlands, the UK's ID cards will not include facilities for holding a digital signature.

This omission could damage the growth of e-commerce and e-government services in Britain, say critics.

A Home Office spokesperson acknowledged that other EU countries are introducing digital signatures, but he said that the UK's ID cards are designed to be used for traditional uses and not e-commerce

"E-commerce is not what ID cards are all about. They are there to tackle serious and organised crime and false identities, not for accessing e-commerce functions," he said.

But this is a huge opportunity missed and it could mean that countries like Estonia will leap over the UK in terms of online services and e-commerce, according to Simon Perry, vice president of security at Computer Associates, who said he is not surprised that the UK is falling behind.

Perry said that because UK does not have a history of carrying ID cards this is just a first step -- unlike Estonia where they are looking at an upgrade of their ID card system. "In these countries, the cultural issues associated with ID cards were dealt with 50 or 60 years ago."

Perry believes that in addition to cultural differences, many of the upcoming countries have less legacy technology than more developed nations, so at first they have a real advantage. He points to India and China as examples, where wired telephones have largely been leapfrogged by cheaper wireless technology. "Installing a wired telephone costs $80. A wireless phone costs $8," he said.