By Martin Kuppinger
April 26, 2010 - German bureaucrats really love an abbreviation, and their latest tongue twister, the "nPA" (short for "neuer Personal-Ausweis" or "new identity card") is a case in point. Scheduled to be issued in November, the credit card-sized ID document will not only replace existing paper and plastic versions, but also enable its owner to conduct digital transactions via the Internet. For that reason, it is being heralded by some as the "passport to the future".
Others are worried about the new ID card's most important feature, the built-in microchip, which will enable many potentially beneficial new functions, but which some fear could also lead to new forms of privacy abuse from both private hackers and government snoopers.
Germany will almost certainly prove to be a test bed for this type of state-sponsored identity technology, due in part to the fact that this is one of only a handful of European nations that requires its citizens to carry an ID card at all times. Over the next ten years, federal authorities will issue an nPA to every person over the age of 16 (EU nationals from countries outside the Schengen Zone will receive digital residence permit cards in the same format), so the question concerns virtually everyone. On the other hand, the new ID card comes at a moment when things like identity theft and online fraud are becoming serious enough to stunt the growth of e-commerce and other online activities as consumers and citizens grow increasingly worried about cybercrime.
The inventors of the nPA have made serious efforts to ensure that the new card will be both convenient and safe. In fact, security was a prime concern from day one among those responsible for its development in the German Ministry of the Interior and the Federal Office for Security in Information Technology, the BSI. As a result, experts in other countries are expected to follow the success of the new ID card closely.
In Germany, the debate revolves around a host of issues such as data protection, security, costs, and limited functionality. Like any large-scale project in this nation of nitpickers, consensus is hard to come by. However, when viewed dispassionately, the compromises reached in most of the contentious areas seem to be reasoned and practicable. And nobody really disputes the nPA's general usefulness.
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