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Apple and several states are making digital driver’s licenses a reality

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Driver’s licenses stored on our phones are not too far off down the road.

Apple announced earlier this week that, by this fall, its Wallet App will be expanded to include digital IDs from participating states. Meanwhile, New York State is working with IBM on the possibility of expanding its Excelsior Pass vaccine passport system to include driver’s licenses, according to a New York Times report. The federal government is also on board with the concept. In April, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said it was looking for input on upcoming rules for mobile digital driver’s licenses.

But are digital IDs a good thing? Maybe not, but they also seem to be inevitable.

The pandemic has helped some people get more comfortable with storing personal information on their phones, which might explain why states and tech companies are forging ahead with the idea of digital driver’s licenses. These efforts are flanked by an ongoing and highly polarizing debate over digital vaccine passports, which provide people with an easy way to prove they’ve been inoculated so that they can do things like board a plane or go to a concert. Several states, including Florida and Texas, have banned or restricted vaccine passports, which suggests that some Americans still are not comfortable storing certain highly personal information on their phones.

Though the technology that powers them is similar in many ways, digital driver’s licenses are not the same thing as vaccine passports, as their health records aren’t necessarily involved. Many of the plans and proposals being considered simply call for a secure, verifiable way to store all the information that’s currently on your physical driver’s license on your phone. Proponents of these digital state identification systems say that this tech will make it more convenient to show your ID, and will give people more control over their information. Privacy and civil liberties advocates warn that normalizing carrying identification cards on our phones could have very bad consequences, including endangering our digital privacy.

Despite apparent support on the state and federal level, some have sounded the alarm on potential problems with digital IDs. Just last month, the American Civil Liberties Union released a detailed report raising issues about a digital state ID system, including concerns about police access to users’ phones, privacy, and surveillance risks, and the possibility that people will one day be coerced into downloading government apps. The Surveillance Technology Oversight Project also obtained a contract revealing that the state of New York has bigger plans for its Excelsior Pass than it initially disclosed, which could reveal the risks of similar digital ID programs.

“It’s hard to trust the claim from officials that these apps are only going to do X or Y,” warns Albert Fox Cahn, an attorney at the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, pointing to the potential expansion of Excelsior Pass. “We see this clear pattern of them being installed for one purpose and then expanded for another.”

Completely digital wallets are just around the corner

The arrival of digital IDs shows how tech companies increasingly want to be involved in all the things you do with your physical wallet. Both iPhone and Android users can already store credit cards, plane tickets, and event tickets in digital wallets. Now, with the impending introduction of digital driver’s licenses, Apple is getting closer to making your physical wallet completely obsolete.

“To be fully free of your physical ID, there’s one more thing we need to bring to iPhone, and that’s your ID. So we’re bringing identity cards to Apple Wallet,” said Apple Vice President Jennifer Bailey at the company’s developer conference on June 7. “It’s that easy! Your ID information is now in Wallet.”

The federal government appears to support the idea. While the DHS is establishing new standards for the technology that powers digital IDs, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is already working with Apple to accept a version of an iPhone-based digital ID that can be used in airports. Several states are also laying the groundwork and rolling out digital driver’s licenses that could work with Apple Wallet (states are generally responsible for issuing ID cards in the US).

Apple isn’t the first or only major tech company trying to bring digital IDs to smartphones. Google has also been working on a system for a digital driver’s license, and last fall, the company detailed new privacy and security standards for developers to handle identity documents on mobile devices. IBM has also been researching digital driver’s licenses and expressed enthusiasm for how they might rely on blockchain technology.

A French security company called Idemia has already launched digital IDs in partnership with several US states, including Arizona and Oklahoma. The company argues that digital IDs make it easier to quickly authenticate someone’s identity, while also allowing a person to share less of their personal information. With an app, for instance, users can opt to just share their age with someone verifying that someone is old enough to buy alcohol without also sharing their address, Idemia explains on its website.

The technology behind digital IDs is inevitably not dissimilar to the tech behind vaccine passports. Opponents to vaccine passports, however, have argued that requiring detailed health information to enter businesses and other public areas hurts people’s privacy and liberty. Nevertheless, some states that have banned vaccine passports are charging ahead with digital driver’s licenses.

In Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis has banned vaccine passports, the DMV is expected to launch its mobile state ID system soon, and in Texas, whose state legislature has restricted the use of vaccine passports, lawmakers are considering a pilot program for digital driver’s licenses. Iowa, which has also limited the use of vaccine passports, also plans to launch a mobile ID system later this year. In Nevada, where vaccine passports remain a contentious issue, Gov. Steve Sisolak last month formally signed off on digital licenses, and the DMV says they could arrive within just a few years.

In any case, it’s clear that residents of several states will soon be able to store their driver’s license on their phone. What remains unclear is whether we’re headed for a country where there are 50 different digital driver’s licenses and 50 different opportunities for issues and problems.

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