Four jurisdictions will take a large and crucial step this summer toward digitizing residents’ primary form of identification: They will begin piloting a digital driver’s license (DDL) with hundreds of employees and family members.

In the works for around a year, the smartphone-based tests in Colorado, Idaho, Maryland and Washington, D.C., are part of a collaboration with Amsterdam-based digital security company Gemalto that will likely begin in June and last around three months, though exact dates have not yet been announced.

There’s been little to no measurable cost so far to the public sector, officials in Colorado and Maryland said, and a Gemalto representative confirmed the pilot continues to be funded by the company and by $2 million in federal funding received in August from the U.S. Commerce Department's National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

The pilot will be largely invisible to most state residents; and the hundreds of Colorado Department of Revenue (DOR) and Office of Information Technology (OIT) employees, and more than 400 Maryland Department of Transportation staffers and family taking part will keep their “plastic” drivers' licenses. That’s because their DDLs will be useable and tested only at prescribed locations.

When the pilot’s over, it's expected that those hundreds of DDLs — which will live in encrypted form on test subjects’ cellphones, downloaded through a Gemalto app created specifically for this purpose — will cease to be active. But like pilot participants, officials are excited about an event some said could be a watershed moment and speed up an epic shift in technology already underway.

“I talk a lot about the digital transformation of government … and I think this is a key piece," Colorado Chief Technology Officer David McCurdy told Government Technology. "I don’t know that the driver’s license is the first thing that gets done, but I think more and more interactions with citizens need to happen through mobile and other secure platforms.”

In addition to being encrypted, Gemalto's DDL requires secondary authentication such as a PIN or fingerprint to open the app.

McCurdy said he believes the pilot itself is creating considerable momentum around DDLs, but acknowledges that traditional drivers' licenses will probably remain “for a long time.”

After going roughly a decade without an update, Maryland debuted new driver’s license and state ID cards last June with changeable, imbedded laser-engraved images that Chrissy Nizer, administrator of the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration, said she believes no other state has.

But despite re-investing in traditional IDs from Gemalto, Maryland officials decided to pilot DDLs too, as a way to improve service, Nizer said.

“I think that the technology is exciting, and certainly we want to use technology in any way we can to enhance service and improve security, and so that’s why we wanted to look at it and see the benefit that it provides,” she told Government Technology, describing a positive “strong reaction from the employees.” But like McCurdy, Nizer said a plastic license will remain the standard “for the foreseeable future.”

Digital License Testing Details

DDL test sites are still being confirmed, but Colorado use cases include liquor stores, lottery sales locations and casinos. The state isn’t planning a test with law enforcement. In Maryland, state police and the Maryland Transportation Authority, which manage bridges, tunnels and tolled facilities, will test DDLs.

Maryland is also hosting a trial at its Baltimore-Washington International Airport. There, federal Transportation Security Administration officials will join the project with their own DDL test at a designated kiosk.

Naturally, Maryland test subjects will participate — and may also have the opportunity to test their digital IDs across state lines in Washington, D.C. — but McCurdy said it’s not yet clear if and how Colorado pilot volunteers will join the airport test.

The test’s other component, however, is how DDLs will be verified. Nizer said law enforcement officers will simply hand test subjects a “card” to be scanned and returned, which will prompt the subject’s device to communicate his or her identity information to the officer’s vehicle.

“Their concern,” Nizer said, “was holding a phone — what if we drop it?"

Tiffany Conway, field marketing expert for Gemalto, said the company’s solutions will manage credentials in real time in the field — but without bulky scanners. Instead, they’ll verify identities on the back end, verifying underlying security certificates through the DMV.

“We developed the technology to ensure your phone never even leaves your hand during a verification. It all happens seamlessly in an offline way on the back end,” she said. “The security really lies in the underlying certificates which are coming from the DMV, because the DMV is the owner of the identification.”

Gemalto offers a variety of secure software, digital banking options, wearable end-to-end payment solutions and drivers' licenses worldwide.

One advantage to DDLs, officials told Government Technology, is that pilot subjects can reveal or obscure layers of information on a need-to-know basis with the app — displaying one’s age to a bouncer or liquor store owner but not a home address.

Digital Licenses in Iowa

As Gemalto’s pilot nears its debut, an earlier DDL test is also moving ahead. The 2015 project between the state of Iowa and identity company MorphoTrust USA, which works with about 80 percent of U.S. departments of motor vehicles on their licensing programs, could yield results soon.

MorphoTrust USA’s 90-day pilot of a mobile driver’s license (mDL) with about 100 employees of the Iowa Department of Transportation allowed assessment of roughly analogous technology that, like Gemalto’s DDL, is an app-based electronic license with a visual resemblance to the hard copy.

Jenny Openshaw, MorphoTrust USA’s vice president of business development and marketing, said the company is in the midst of a competitive state procurement process for an mDL using components of an electronic ID that went live in Alabama’s Department of Revenue about a month ago as an option to secure online state income tax filings against theft.

“We are very hopeful that by early to the middle of next year, Iowa will be the first state to have generally available mDL,” Openshaw said. “This offers so many opportunities not only for the individual, for more convenience, for more security and all that that implies, but also for the DMV. They’re going to see a lot of efficiencies, a lot of security benefits, a lot of cost savings going forward with this technology.”

MorphoTrust USA has received $3.2 million in NIST grants to fund creation of an electronic ID.

Opportunity aside, much work remains to be done at the state and federal levels if DDLs and mDLs are to replace their analog ancestors.

At the pilot’s end, officials in both states will review its results and analyze the data generated, including, in Maryland, survey responses from agency and employee participants; and they will likely confer with Gemalto representatives as well.

Standardizing Digital Drivers' Licenses

There are currently no nationwide standards for electronic drivers' licenses, officials said, although the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, which works with DMVs to create voluntary but generally followed standards for drivers' licenses, has formed a DDL working group.

Conway and Nizer said NIST, which funded Gemalto to create a DDL for state DMVs, is interested in the process and creating common standards. McCurdy said NIST will review results of the Gemalto pilot, but whether the agency creates “product” based on it “will depend on the value of it and what findings they have with it.”

The two also agreed that changes to laws and statutes, as well as to existing computer systems, could be necessary for a migration to DDLs. A changeover wouldn’t be free, but the two differed on the cost, with Nizer seeing only the potential for a long-term savings.

McCurdy said he sees “a huge opportunity” for savings in a shift away from “plastic” licenses and a paper-based culture — and, more broadly, a range of possibilities in digital identification from fishing licenses to food assistance cards.

“I think it’s very exciting that Colorado is out there testing it,” he said. “We’re in the very early stages of it, but this is how you move the ball forward. You’ve got to start somewhere.”