The European Commission will move "as quickly as possible" towards a clear legal framework for the use of digital signatures and encryption, the EC director-general for telecommunications, Robert Verrue, told an assembly of cryptography experts and member state policy makers.
Speaking at the European expert hearing on digital signatures and encryption in Copenhagen yesterday, Verrue said the EC initiative, which began last October with its paper on 'Ensuring Security and trust in electronic communication', will focus on the integrity and security of digital signatures, not on the confidentiality of electronic communications.
"It is very important to make a distinction between confidentiality and security, they are very different issues. We need basic security, but confidentiality goes much further. It is more complex and more sensitive," Verrue said.
"We must get as quickly as possible to a situation where people and the market have proper digital signatures that are usable and are recognised by other users," he went on.
Harmonised legislation is essential to ensure mutual recognition of digital signatures in different states and the interoperability of different technologies. Verrue said that, without this harmonisation, cross-border electronic communication and e-business will be practically impossible.
"This will be an internal market measure, in that it will only define what needs to be done. In terms of technology it will be as flexible as possible," he said.
Another Commission official, Richard Schlechter, outlined the likely timeframe for the adoption of the directive on the issue. The next stage, a proposal from the Commission, will come on 13 May, and will be closely followed by a presentation to EU telecomms ministers by IT and telecomms commissioner Martin Bangemann.
Schlechter said the directive will "hopefully" be approved by the member states when EU telecomms ministers meet on 25 November, which will be the only time these ministers meet under the EU's Austrian presidency during the second half of this year, he said.
"If everything goes forward as we hope, I think the end of 1999 is a realistic date for implementation of the directive," he said.
Verrue said the Commission is also well aware of the need for international solutions, but that harmonisation of national rules on digital signatures must "at least be achieved in the EU". With a common European position it will be possible to move the international debate forward, he said.
On the speed of technological development, Verrue said it was necessary to pre-empt change, not react to it, but that it was also important to be practical and not attempt the impossible.
"Industry wants us to be more imaginative. They ask us to do more than just digital signatures, but we are trying to follow a realistic strategy. We do not want to bite off more than we can chew," he said.
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