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Digital Driver's Licenses: How States Can Prepare for the Digital Wave of Identities (Industry Perspective)

States are looking at digital versions of IDs as a channel for DMVs to provide options for mobile-first citizens.

Americans are shifting toward a “wallet-less” lifestyle, with bank cards and reward cards all accessible via the mobile phone. But we can’t be 100 percent wallet-less yet. Most of us need to carry our driver’s license for identification or have it on hand during the average 101 minutes a day Americans spend driving. The mobile driver’s license or digital driver’s license (DDL) is a solution to having everything you need without the wallet. A number of states are beginning to investigate the viability of issuing digital driver's licenses that would be housed on a mobile device. Some of the challenges states are working to address in relation to the DDL are:

  • citizen privacy considerations;
  • trusted and secure data and credential management;
  • citizen control of displayed information; and
  • compatibility across all citizen devices.
With the continued shift toward a mobile-first mindset, states see the need for a soft copy option to complement the current hard copy driver’s license. It is also a step in the right direction to reach a new millennial citizen who has grown up with a mobile device. According to a 2015 Pew Research study, 86 percent of people ages 18 to 29 have a smartphone.  

Much of the excitement around DDLs comes from the possibilities they hold for states with regard to flexibility, verification and data management. States can provide all the typical information found on a hard copy such as date of birth or photo, and citizens have control over what information is shared. For example, when asked to prove their age, citizens can display only their age or birthdate without showing their address or other personal information.

The DDL can help law enforcement determine if the personal information is accurate and authentic. Currently, the primary means of validation in most scenarios is visual inspection of the physical card, but what if someone travels across state lines? The officer inspecting the license must have knowledge of out-of-state licenses in order to verify its validity. A police officer in one state might not be familiar with the security features on another state’s driver's license, which can make law enforcement’s job more complicated. Whereas, if both states have a standard DDL solution in place, they can connect to each other's secure back-end data and validate an out-of-state credential.

Digital driver's licenses also offer states more flexibility during the issuance process. Most states issue their licenses centrally, meaning that the license is produced at a remote location, then mailed to the recipient. When someone goes to the DMV, they are issued a temporary paper license to carry until the permanent version arrives in the mail. With DDL, digital issuance can be immediate, replacing the temporary paper ID. This gives states more flexibility for a couple of reasons. First, they can revoke or invalidate the digital license after a period of time, encouraging the individual to begin using the permanent updated version or to take action if they have not yet received the physical driver’s license. In addition, currently most temporary licenses have few security features that prevent fraudulent copies from being made. The digital version could reduce the security challenges of temporary paper driver's licenses.

The conversations around digital driver's licenses are becoming louder, but many questions and concerns have arisen around privacy and security. With identity theft continuing to pose a threat, many fear that a DDL will increase vulnerability to hacking and identity theft. Each day, we hand our driver's licenses over during multiple types of encounters. We hand them to clerks in supermarkets to prove our age, we provide them to rental car employees to gain permission to rent a car, and even leave them with dealerships when we test drive a vehicle. Perpetrators would have less access to information than they would if you lost your physical license as a digital version must be accessed using an application-specific PIN or even biometrics so the information cannot be retrieved if the phone is lost or stolen.

It isn’t about replacing the physical driver’s license. States are looking at it as a channel for DMVs to provide options to their mobile-first citizens. The digital driver’s license is intended to complement the physical license, in essence a supplemental form of the hard copy that also offers additional benefits.

Local governments and state agencies have long been at the forefront of bringing new technologies to fruition as citizens’ needs change. Currently, there are many states proposing new legislation on DDL and others are pursuing pilots to address the challenges. They see the DDL as a crucial way of supporting the technology migration to a mobile-first mentality. Citizens benefit by controlling their information and having a mobile-friendly alternative, while states find a way to solve current challenges of issuance, authentication and verification of identities.

The digital driver’s license is the beginning, but it also opens the door for states to provide other digital credentials like licenses and permits for activities other than driving. We have all been there — forgetting our wallet but having our phone in hand — so it’s only a matter of time before citizens see it as an option in their local DMV.

Steve Purdy is vice president of MIDS, a Gemalto company.

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