Belgium gets smart about identity

28th July 2003, Comments 0 comments

The Belgian government hopes that within five years every citizen will be carrying a new electronic identity card. But will the new 'smart' IDs prove to be the citizen’s friend or Big Brother’s little helper? Khaled Diab looks for answers.

Belgium plans to test run its new electronic identity cards in 11 communes starting from March. If the pilot scheme goes well, the government plans to phase in, over five years, more than 10 million new IDs across the country.

The ‘smart’ IDs are being plugged as a convenient tool for citizens, which will save them time and energy by providing them with a safe and secure means to deal with the government electronically and conduct online business transactions.

“The new ID-card has been conceptualised from a citizen’s point of view,” Manu Robbroeckx, spokesman for FEDICT, the federal information technology body overseeing the project, told Expatica.

According to Robbroeckx a cardholder, using a special smart card reader and PIN code, would be able to fill in tax returns, pay social security and vote from the comfort of her armchair. Once our citizen of the future has fulfilled those tedious chores, she can kick back her heels and use the time it frees up to go online to order a pizza or a holiday in the sun.

These transactions would be safeguarded through the use of a dual authentication system in which a private key on the card, created through a complex random logarithm, is checked up against a public key on a database.

The government hopes that the new system, by filling the security holes that currently plague online authentication, will herald a new era of e-government and provide the sluggish growth in e-commerce with a helpful shot in the arm.

“The new system opens up the possibility for convenient and easy remote access to e-government (and e-business) services,” said Bart Preneel, an academic who advises the government on security issues related to electronic identification systems.

“Basic PC configurations currently offer a very low security level, hence, transactions on such a PC are vulnerable… User authentication on a smart card is much more secure.”

Privacy fears

Despite the potential convenience of the new system, privacy campaigners and legal experts have voiced doubts regarding the smart IDs.

“There will be question-marks regarding privacy. It’s unavoidable,” said Godelieve Craenen, a professor of public law at Leuven University. “The new ID will act as an electronic bridge… This can multiply the risk of others gaining access to private information.”

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