Vincenzo Pinto / AFP - Getty Images
Members of the Pontifical Swiss Guard have long given Vatican employees their permission to enter. Starting in January, electronic cards will handle some of that duty.
ROME — The Vatican is the only fully fortified state in the world, protected by 40-foot-high walls. The few porte, the arched access gates into Vatican City, are manned by Swiss Guards dressed in their colorful Renaissance uniforms and carrying swords.
Visitors are asked to sign in and are allowed only upon invitation. But for Vatican employees, usually a nod of recognition will do. The Vatican is the smallest state in the world, and pretty much everybody knows each other.
But things are quickly changing.
This month, the Vatican is introducing an electronic badge for some of its thousands of employees. Workers will be expected to swipe in and out when entering and exiting.
Some of the world's media have linked the step-up in security directly to the "Vatileaks" scandal, the unprecedented security breach in which Paolo Gabriele, the pope's former butler, photocopied and leaked confidential documents to the Italian media.
So is the Holy Father turning into Big Brother?
No, a Vatican employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told NBC News: "I haven't received my card yet, but I have seen swiping machines being installed at Porta Sant'Anna," the main gate for Vatican employees. "This is not a case of Big Brother, more like the Vatican coming in line with the modern world and issuing a badge like any other big company."
The Vatican employs roughly 3,000 people and generates tens of millions of dollars in revenue, mainly from tourism and donations. If it were a company, it would be a midsize business with a healthy income and solid assets, despite having recorded a $19 million loss in 2011. But unlike most private companies, the Vatican has allowed some employees an unprecedented degree of flexibility in their working hours.
Robert Mickens, the Rome Correspondent for The Tablet newspaper and a former employee at Vatican Radio, says that this self-governance in some cases has been abused: "When a journalist asked Pope John XXIII how many people work in the Vatican, he replied: 'About half'."
"The Vatican has tried hard to check that people stick to their working hours for years," Mickens said. "At Vatican Radio they introduced electronic badges years ago because people would go for their coffee break and return hours later. So I think that this is more of a case of the Vatican trying to check that its employees do their job than to prevent them from leaking information."
Whether the new system is aimed at preventing a new Vatileaks or merely keeping tabs on employee hours, the Vatican's ancient walls are about to receive a modern twist.
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