BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany has introduced electronic identity cards that store personal data on microchips, raising fears over data protection in a country especially wary of surveillance due to its Nazi and Stasi past.
The so-called eIDs enable owners to identify themselves online and sign documents with an electronic signature, which the government says should "increase the safety and convenience of e-business and e-commerce."
Yet many Germans fear the eIDs -- which store the owner's date and place of birth, address and biometric photo, with fingerprints voluntary -- could expose them to data theft.
In a country where historical memories of the Nazi Gestapo and old Communist East Germany's Stasi security police linger, there are also worries about an invasion of privacy.
Johannes Caspar, head of Hamburg's data protection agency, said some of the fears about the eIDs were no doubt the result of German history, in which the state twice acted as a kind of "Big Brother" collecting and storing data about its citizens.
Under Hitler's Nazi dictatorship, the Gestapo secret police kept close tabs on its citizens and under the Communist regime in East Germany the Stasi infiltrated nearly every aspect of life. It collected so much information about citizens that its files would stretch 112 km (70 miles) if laid out flat.
Small wonder, then, that Germans take data collection so seriously, as if it were part of their cultural identity, Caspar told Reuters.
"If you want to -- and only if you want to -- you can use a PIN number to make this data available to firms or authorities when you're doing business over the Internet," said Rainer Orell from Frankfurt's citizen center. "It's always for you to decide how much of your data you want to make accessible to whom."
Orell said there had nonetheless been a 10 percent increase in ID card applications in recent weeks, as wary Germans rushed to get another old-style one before authorities switched to issuing the electronic ones.
Around 44 percent of Germans remain skeptical about the eIDs, according to a survey by German tech industry body Bitkom.
Some have raised concerns about the security of the new card. Members of the Chaos Computer Club (CCC), a European organization of hackers, say issuing authorities are "insufficiently prepared" for the new ID cards and that electronic data could be more susceptible to criminal abuse.
"The high degree of protection against forgery which German identity cards have enjoyed up until now is being unnecessarily undermined by the overhasty introduction of a large-scale project which is both conceptually weak and technically dubious," said Dirk Engling, spokesman for CCC.
Cornelia Rogall-Grothe of Germany's Interior Ministry has rejected these criticisms, saying both the cards and reading devices "use the latest technology on the market."
"But the new ID card obviously can't make an infected computer safe," she said. "Citizens have a duty to ensure they have the latest anti-virus protection, firewalls and suchlike."