German government employees get electronic signatures

Germany's federal government is introducing electronic signatures for its employees, a step it hopes will help make the security procedure generally accepted in the country. More than 200,000 employees of ministries and agencies will be able to sign electronic documents using a chip card with an encrypted key, giving them the same legal weight as paper documents with a handwritten signature, the federal Cabinet said in a statement Thursday.

The measure builds on legislation making digital signatures legally binding, which entered force in Germany last year, in concert with an effort to introduce such laws throughout the European Union.

Employees will be supplied with chip cards and readers between now and 2005, when a broad-ranging project to put all possible government services online is slated for completion. About a quarter of the 400 targeted services -- including, for example, bidding for federal procurement contracts -- will require electronic signatures, the government said. The one-time setup cost, including hardware, is estimated at €60 (US$53) per employee, with annual maintenance costs of €20 to €40.

The new decision calls for the development of standards for the securing of online documents, e-mail, and electronic transactions. The goal is to implement the standards ISIS (Industrial Signature Interoperability Specification) and MTT (MailTrusT), still under development with government funding.

"The federal administration expects that the interoperability standard ISIS-MTT will quickly establish itself on the market, and that appropriate products for each application, based on ISIS-MTT, will be available," the Cabinet decision said.

Some IT professionals were critical of the government for not being more specific about which technology it intends to use.

The industry association Bitkom (Bundesverband Informationswirtschaft, Telekommunikation und neue Medien e.V.), while welcoming the decision, complained that it makes only suggestions and no concrete directions for implementation.

"After the many rounds of voting not much more remained than a description of the status quo," the group said in a statement. "The government thus unfortunately waters down its clear and praiseworthy aim of quickly and comprehensively outfitting the administration with security technology."

Bitkom called instead for a "citizens' card," with chip and electronic signature, for all Germans.

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