The German ePA project - yes we can

OK, everyone has used that claim "yes we can" right now. But it fit's pretty well to the German project ePA (Elektronischer Personalausweis) which is one amongst several projects in different European countries for a new type of personal identification card. It's not an ePassport but an personal identification card - you have to have the latter in Germany, you can obtain the first if you require it for international travel.

In contrast to some other countries like the USA and the United Kingdom, a personal ID card is mandatory in Germany. Currently it is an "old-school" type of printed document. The ePA will replace this with an electronic ID card which will be issued by the German state -  using the same deployment mechanism with the so called "Meldeämter", e.g. registration offices (local offices run by cities where every address change and so on has to be registred). Thus there is a personal identification included when requesting and deploying the ID card.

For a long time I have been a little sceptical regarding German eGovernment initiatives. Many of the didn't convince me, either due to their obvious lacks of identity management (like in the area of tax declarations with the ridiculous ELSTER project) or because there was far too much ideology in (Linux vs. Microsoft). But the ePA proves that Germany is able to really run a leading-edge project not only in the manufacturing industry, but as well in eGovernment.

The ePA supports different use cases, from the identification at border controls, the police, and in other situations up to several public use cases. The interesting point is that these use cases will then be supported by a strong authentication, based on the ePA and readers for that ID card. It will be possible, to give an example, to provide age verification - while enforcing the concept of "minimal disclosure". For example, the answer might be "yes" when asking for age verification above 18 years instead of supplying the full birth date. The ePA will as well provide the capability to store the qualified electronic signature which can be used to sign contracts and official documents as well in the private as governmental use.

All these features are implemented in a well-thought way, based on distributed stores on the ID card. And they are backed by valid business models as well for providers of digital certificates (qualified electronic signature) as for relying parties, e.g. service providers which plan to support the ePA as a means for strong authentication, age verification, or other purposes.

For sure there are still some open questions: What about foreigners (there will be interoperability, there will be other solutions)? How long will it take for the critical mass (the old ID card has a validity of ten years thus replacement will take some time)? How about integration with concepts like Information Cards (some companies are working on that)? But despite open questions, the concept of the ePA is a promising one which might as well support eGovernment concepts as the strong authentication for private use cases. I expect that we'll see a lot of interesting use cases and applications around ePA soon - and some things you might learn as well at our European Identity Conference 2009 in Munich.



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