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Italy issues its first electronic identity card

(IDG) -- Interior Minister Enzo Bianco on Saturday issued Italy's first electronic identity card, making the Mediterranean nation the world's second country, after Finland, to introduce the IT-friendly document.

Bianco presented the credit-card sized ID to a 17-year-old Neapolitan student, Paolo Mossetti, to mark the final day of a global forum on e-government in Naples, which was overshadowed by violent clashes between police and anti-globalization demonstrators.

The cards, which are produced by the Istituto Poligrafico e Zecca dello Stato, the state printing works and mint, feature microprocessors and optical memory bands with a capacity of 1.8 M-bytes, Maurizio Bruschi, the head of the identity card project at the interior ministry said in a telephone interview Monday. The optical memory strips employ technology bought from Laser Card Systems Corp. of Mountain View, Calif., a subsidiary of Drexter Technology Corp., Bruschi said. The first cryptographic microchips were purchased from Siemens AG of Germany, but future cards will contain the best value chips available on the market at the time, he said.

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"Finland has introduced an optional electronic identity card which is still accompanied by a paper document. The two are not fully integrated," Bruschi said. "Ours is the first project in the world which substitutes the conventional identity card and contains the individual's tax code and identity details."

The new cards will be more difficult to forge than the old ones and will allow citizens to interact online with government departments, to book a visit to the doctor and even to travel abroad within the European Union, Bruschi said. The cards will be introduced initially in 83 major cities, with some 1 million due to be delivered by the end of the year, the interior ministry official said. Within five years around 50 million people are expected to hold the new cards, which can also be issued to children and will allow adults to vote electronically.

"France and Germany are watching the progress of the Italian project with great interest and they are also waiting to see how Italy's project for a digital signature, which could be combined with the electronic ID cards, catches on," Bruschi said. Future versions of the cards will incorporate the owner's fingerprints and as much health information as the individual is prepared to authorize. The final say on the incorporation of sensitive health information into the electronic cards must rest with the individual citizen, Italy's privacy commissioner, Stefano Rodota, told the Naples conference.

The government intends to boost Internet use by encouraging the installation of public computer terminals in bars, restaurants and shops, Public Administration Minister Franco Bassanini announced at the conference on Thursday. "Any citizen who is unable to do so from his home or place of work will be able to use the terminals in these public places to dialogue with the administration, if necessary using his electronic identity card to identify himself," Bassanini said. "The shopkeeper will act as a substitute for the public front office, reducing staff costs for the state administration."

Italy may still be lagging behind other industrialized companies in the penetration of PCs, but its efforts to introduce IT in government are as intense as many of its industrial rivals, according to a study published during the conference by the Rome daily La Repubblica. In the year 2000 PCs were present in only 23 percent of Italian households, as compared to 76 percent in Sweden, 79 percent in Denmark and 83 percent in Iceland, according to a survey of 40 technologically advanced countries carried out by Italy's Forum for Public Administration and the social research institute Censis.

Italy emerges as a leader, however, when it comes to state investment in e-government, the study found. 100 percent of the offices of the central government have a Website, as compared to 98 percent in Germany and 90 percent in France and Switzerland, it said. Local government offices are also active, with 93 percent possessing a window on the Net, as compared to just 66.4 percent in Japan. Over the next few years Italy plans to spend US$6.65 million on e-government, the newspaper report said, less than the $10.3 million earmarked by Japan but six times more than the spending plans of Germany.

While demonstrators outside protested against the economic effects of globalization, participants in the Naples conference, who came from 122 countries, were discussing ways to bridge the digital divide between rich and poor societies. More than 70 percent of the world's countries still have a monopolist telecom carrier, contributing to the prohibitively high cost of phone calls, Mark Mulloch Brown, a director of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) told the conference. In Africa the average income is $1 per day, while the cost of a call is $1 per minute, Brown said. Not surprisingly, as a result there are more Internet connections in the city of New York than in the entire African continent, conference organizers said.

"Under these circumstances all the policies intended to tackle the digital divide and promote the spread of Internet risk failing," Brown warned.

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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