The German government today announced its plans to introduce electronic signatures for its employees in a bid to create a nationally recognised electronic security system.

German government employees will be supplied with citizens' chip cards and card readers between now and 2005, when a broad-ranging project to put all government services online is slated for completion.

The chip card is similar to an ID card in that it will contain a certain amount of personal information about its owner as well a unique digital signature.

In the UK rumours have been circulating that a trial ID is being prepared, but the Home Office has denied this.

"We are still discussing the possibility of introducing an ID card, but there are many hurdles we have to resolve before that can happen."

Austria will be introducing a similar electronic smart ID card by the end of this year for the general public. It will contain similar digital signature technology, a digital photo and private personal information such as medical history.

Austria's first attempt to introduce an ID card was a complete failure. Launched at the beginning of 2000, it was branded useless by the majority of, and many refused to apply for it.

"It was not machine-readable. It was just stupid," said Edmond Liliandau, editor of Computerwelt, Austria. "A smartcard alternative is supposed to be tested over the next couple of weeks, which makes much more sense."

But many Austrians are still not supportive of the ID card.

"The problem is that we don't know what information will be put on it and we will not be given a choice," said Liliandau.

Austria is not the first country to launch a smart ID card however — in Finland a smart card was made available in spring 2000.

But it has thus far been unsuccessful, with less than one in 100 Finnish people regularly using the card, according to a report by the country's Information Society Board.

The report blames its failure on a poorly developed infrastructure and a lack of technology to support the card.

In Italy the smart card programme, launched in May of last year, also failed to stir up any enthusiasm, with fewer than one million cards having been issued by the end of 2001. Italy is planning to re-launch the card and extend its accompanying technology throughout the year.

"In theory a smartcard is a good idea," said Liliandau. "But the technology needs to be there to support it or it is useless."

This will be an issue for Germany. Some IT professionals have been critical of the government for not being more specific about what technology it intends to use to support its chip card.

German IT industry association Bitkom accused the government of "not comprehensively outfitting the administration with security technology".