There are an estimated 311 million smartphone users in the United States, doubling as video cameras, calculators, GPS guides, flashlights, e-readers and, soon, driver’s licenses.
In the near future, if a police officer pulls you over, you may not need to hand over a plastic ID card. Instead, you’ll share your information digitally with the officer, who will hopefully give you a warning and advise you to fix that broken taillight.
Digital driver’s licenses have been in development for a while. The Department of Homeland Security is working closely with the National Institute for Standards and Technology to arrive at a secure, scalable system.
The International Organization for Standardization has also done a great deal of work to nail down specifics. The working plan is ISO standard 18013-5, which outlines the data set, physical layout, machine-readable technology, access control and authentication.
There’s a lot to consider, says Ketan Mehta, an IT specialist with the National Institute of Standards and Technology. One standard will apply to an “in-person transfer of driver’s license data from one device to another,” he says. “There’s another standard for sending that information over the internet.” That framework will hopefully be settled this year.
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Seeing Security Advantages in the Air Too
In an initial rollout for PreCheck passengers, the Transportation Security Administration is accepting digital licenses at airports in Arizona, Colorado and Maryland. Passengers can tap their phones against a digital reader or scan a QR code. “You will see an alert on your mobile device with a summary of the data being shared with TSA,” says agency spokesperson Carter Langston, adding that users must consent to send that information.
The Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration launched a digital driver’s license pilot in 2017. Five hundred residents participated to help the agency understand how the ID would work in various situations ranging from liquor store purchases to Camden Yards baseball games, says MVA Administrator Christine Nizer. “There’s a wide breadth of experience there,” she says.
Nizer points out that physical ID cards have their own security issues, such as the owner not knowing where and how their data will be used. “Even doctors’ offices photograph the front and back,” she says. A digital license, on the other hand, shares only the information necessary for a specific transaction. “There’s a lot less you’re sharing,” says Nizer.
The estimated number of U.S. smartphone users in 2023
Source: statista.com, “Number of smartphone users in the United States from 2009 to 2040,” 2023
Digital Expansions on the Horizon
Soon, Connecticut, Georgia, Hawaii, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma, Puerto Rico and Utah will offer digital licenses.
In the meantime, iPhone users in Arizona, Colorado and Maryland can use digital licenses with Apple Wallet, and Maryland residents can use Google Wallet to hold digital licenses in their Android devices.
“We collect verification information from users and send it encrypted to the Department of Motor Vehicles,” says Dong Min Kim, director of product management for Google Wallet. “Once approved by the DMV, the license will be stored encrypted on the device and is only accessible with user consent.”
It’s worth emphasizing that digital driver’s license information is shared electronically, so you won’t have to hand your phone to a stranger.
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