Later this year, around a million Midwesterners will get the chance to use their smartphones in a way that’s believed to be a first for any state — as mobile or digital drivers’ licenses. Iowa is in the early stages of deploying the technology that will enable residents to display and control their personally identifiable information. 

The state is confident this is what the public wants. This spring, it signed contracts with a number of firms, including IBM for hosting and service support, and expects to spend $3.5 million to make mobile drivers’ licenses (mDL), or digital drivers’ licenses (DDL), a reality. 

The exact timing of Iowa’s mDL launch has yet to be determined, but the effort is sure to be watched closely by Delaware, which began an mDL pilot in March; and by Washington, D.C., Colorado, Idaho, Maryland and Wyoming, which are also piloting mDL technology from Gemalto, an international digital security company. 

Widespread use of mDLs is generally believed to be inevitable, though years away. Public officials and security experts view the digital licenses as the best platform for what is expected to eventually become a universal, widely accepted, safer and more secure form of single ID — the driver’s license 2.0, with information that can be more closely guarded by its owner, yet more quickly and inexpensively updated by state agencies. 

Iowa Department of Transportation (DOT) Director Mark Lowe said the technology could enhance existing uses for “hard cards” (plastic drivers’ licenses), and ultimately surpass them as a universally accepted identity with the benefit of enhancing other services.“From my perspective, the next place we go with this is not so much showing up at a state agency and showing the mDL, as much as using the mDL as the portal by which we connect with the person to undertake transactions,” Lowe said.

Some of those transactions include using the mDL when registering to vote — still a paper option at some departments of motor vehicles — and filing state income tax returns, in which it could help speed up the secure submission of the return as well as the refund. 

Geoff Slagle, director of identity management at the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, described Iowa as “solid in their resolve to see the mDL come to light as quickly as possible.” The state is also working to align its mDL project with the AAMVA and the International Organization for Standardization. AAMVA’s joint mDL working group has recently circulated a first official draft of international mDL standards.

“For the foreseeable future, we’ll have both. In my opinion, we will see a critical mass of mDLs within the next five years,” Slagle said. “I believe that 10 years from now, physical cards will far and away be the exception and that most people will be carrying and using an mDL as their preferred credential.” 

Iowa first piloted mDLs in late summer 2015 with 100 state DOT employees. The state’s Department of Public Safety has also been closely involved in testing, as well as the state’s retail and business communities that rely on drivers’ licenses to verify a person’s age, address and origin. 

The technology underpinning these interactions and transactions is still being developed but will be centered on an app for residents; an app or software program called Verify LE for the law enforcement community; and a reader or scanner for business and retail that could reveal digital features invisible to the naked eye — though the mDL barcode may also be readable by existing devices. 

The mDL available for Iowa residents will resemble their current driver’s license, but its headshot will have the ability to be rotated left or right as a unique security feature. It will also contain layered or “privacy” viewing capabilities, enabling license holders to screen their necessary information, for example, displaying image and age to a bartender, but not a home address. 

Law enforcement’s mDL software will allow officers to remotely request a driver’s license information from a database for all occupants of a vehicle detained during a traffic stop. This will give officers vital information about all the occupants and improve police-citizen interactions. 

The digital licenses will let the state renew a driver’s data dynamically, according to Robert Mikell, business development director for IDEMIA, a software firm working on the project. This will allow for real-time updates of violations and suspensions, saving time and money now spent dispersing changes via paper or email. 

Iowa’s pilot, which concluded in early 2016, gave the state a more detailed sense of the deeper meaning and the interoperability inherent in digital identifications; and showed the significance of using a movable image with “a liveness that would not just be a screen capture,” said Lowe. 

The agency realized its mDL would have to be “more sophisticated” than previously thought, according to Lowe, emphasizing that while its solution will resemble an existing license visually, it must “convey information and do it in a secure and authenticated way.”

The security challenge for agencies and technology providers is how to adequately safeguard a document that may resemble the physical driver’s license but will be capable of doing much more, while providing robust protections on a device and during information transmission.

Adding a timestamp or movable, 3-D-like qualities to the photo of its bearer may help secure it. Presenting it in a “secure container” on the smartphone, within its own app, will also help. However, the devices and methods used by law enforcement, retailers and private businesses, and the digital handshakes that occur when mDLs are viewed will have to be hardened. 

Another key issue for agencies and private-sector technology providers is the interoperability between states and jurisdictions, technologists said, suggesting that such flexibility will be the deciding factor in enabling mDLs to move from novelty status to the preferred format for a driver’s personally identifiable information. 

A key hurdle is that, while motor vehicle agencies are beginning to contemplate an eventual move to mDLs, states are in different stages of adoption. Public agencies and potential mDL users possess widely varying degrees of technology, making the rollout of mDLs problematic. 

Arjan Geluk, principal advisor for UL Identity Management and Security, recommended states make sure any new infrastructure keeps pace with the availability of mDLs to avoid deployment issues similar to what happened with chip card deployments in Japan and Taiwan where payment cards with security chips and card readers were not always rolled out concurrently. 

“There are a lot of promising opportunities around mobile drivers’ licenses. I think what is important is, if you go, keep it simple at the start,” said Geluk, who also leads an AAMVA task force specifically focused on mobile drivers’ licenses.   

The current landscape has room for states to have their own take on the technology and for vendors to compete, said Lowe, “but in the end, we can all cross borders, recognize each other, interact with each other and be consistent in the way that we do that.”