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Last Updated: Tuesday, 27 April, 2004, 10:37 GMT 11:37 UK
Would Italy's ID card work in UK?

By Tamsin Smith
BBC Rome reporter

Italian ID card
Electronic ID cards are replacing paper ones in Italy
The Italian government is introducing 40 million electronic identity cards storing fingerprints and other biometric data to replace the paper versions people have been using since the 1950s.

Italy's system is voluntary but widely used to identify people with police, qualify for elections, get health care, and as proof of age.

The government is rolling out 80,000 small blue cards a week, each with a microchip and optical strip.

The technology is identical to that used by US immigration along the Mexican border and similar to the card proposed by the British government.

'Cuts bureaucracy'

"This card will replace more than 20 documents," explains technical manager Alessandro Mehlem.

"Social security, tax codes, driving license, passport... will all be on this card, and there is room for plenty more information and biometric data if the government wants to add it in the future."

The new generation of electronic identity is being produced by Laser Memory Card.

CEO Luigi Mezzanote advised the UK Home Office over the shape of a British identity card.

But he says ID cards alone will not necessarily help the fight against illegal immigration

Student Mario Trimarchi
Yes it can help security but as long as it doesn't meddle with your privacy
Student Mario Trimarchi

"My suggestion to the British government was to start with an electronic residency permit for immigrants, and then give identity cards to British citizens," he said.

"Here in Italy, we will have two different cards, one for citizens and one for immigrants with permanent residency status."

The new electronic card is unlikely to cause much of a fuss amongst Italians, who are already used to carrying and producing identity documents and who hate spending time in queues and dealing with abundant bureaucracy.

Student Mario Trimarchi told BBC News Online: "The new card will be good because it will eliminate red tape. We have so much bureaucracy here, just going to the bank for example.

Worries remain

"But it needs to be used in the proper way. Yes it can help security but as long as it doesn't meddle with your privacy."

Shopkeeper Sara added: "It's not much different from the old one really.

"I'm a good person, so it's right that I have a document to testify that I haven't done anything wrong and I have no problems. I don't really mind what the card is like."

But there are concerns about what kind of information the card will hold and how this information will be controlled.

You must remember that privacy is also the right to be ignored, to correct and to be able to delete personal data
Civil rights lawyer Giuseppe Marazzita

A law passed by the Italian government in 2000 paved the way for this electronic identity system and also laid out important privacy guarantees.

Civil rights lawyer Giuseppe Marazzita told BBC News online: "It's a good law but there are still some worries.

"With biometric information, your body becomes a password in order to give you access to services.

"This information could be dangerous if there's too much of it. You must remember that privacy is also the right to be ignored, to correct and to be able to delete personal data."

The Italian government expects all its citizens to have a shiny new identity card in their pockets five years from now.

Its level of success in ensuring this - and balancing civil rights with new technology - is certainly something the British government will be watching very closely.

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