With Europe keen to follow the American system of creating cross-border ID cards, Austrian company Voltom is currently developing a virtual online identity card.

The 'virtual card', which costs around €30 (£18.75), can be used to verify a user's age when purchasing goods or accessing certain sites, or for more complex procedures such as accessing networks and using bank accounts.

The cards are being pioneered in Austria and Germany but UK citizens can also register for the card by following the instructions on the site (www.voltom.com), but for now there aren't any English-speaking call centre workers.

"Users can register the card with their ISPs to pay their monthly subscriptions and [at the same time] limit their child's access to the internet," said Thomas Schichtar for Voltom.

"They can then use it as a professional ID card for their company intranet and to save documents, so that no one else can read them. It's about creating their own online presence," added Schichtar.

For the purposes of visual identification, every user needs access to a PC and webcam when registering. Individuals can insert as much or as little personal information as they choose, and this will be checked against their mugshot when they use the card.

There's definite movement towards authentication in Europe, prompted by the needs of democracy and industry.

In the UK Home Secretary David Blunkett started pushing his campaign for an e-voting ID card back in February. Germany has already started issuing eID cards to federal government staff.

But the card is limited to use at its original setup IP address, thus preventing simultaneous access.

"The user has one card only to ensure no one else can use it," said Schichtar.

From a safety point of view, Voltrom claims this card is safer than using a credit card to pay for goods on the internet — and not just because of its webcam identification requirement.

All necessary data is coded by a key up to 4,096 bits in length and all activities are carried out on a server that provides protection against data transmission.

If someone other than the authorised owner tries to use the ID card, then the real registrant will be notified immediately with details of the IP address used and exact time when the card was tried.

"The card could be developed for an individual company. You can build your own system and make use the card for whatever you need," added Schichtar. "It's a new angle on the old idea."