Mobile driver's license would replace the physical card with a digital identity

Industry group is working with states to make interoperability and security top priorities as the new infrastructure is built.

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In addition to pushing autonomous vehicles into the mainstream, the coronavirus also may speed up the drive to digitize driver's licenses.

Eleven states are already testing mobile driver's licenses (mDL) or planning pilot projects, including Colorado, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Iowa. A digital driver's license would come in the form of a phone app protected by biometrics or a PIN. Instead of handing over a physical license to a police officer or store clerk, an individual could display the relevant information or send it electronically.
 
Randy Vanderhoof, executive director of the Secure Technology Alliance, said that a digital version of a license would give users more control over the amount of information they share with a third party. The Alliance is an industry group that specializes in secure solutions for payment, identity verification, and access. The STA convenes vendors and customers of end-to-end security solutions designed to protect privacy and digital assets.

SEE: Digital transformation road map (free PDF)

The Alliance and its partners have been developing a technical specification that allows consumers to display only as much information as necessary. The app could include display options to show:

  • Age only
  • Age and photo only 
  • Address only 

For retailers that have to verify the age of a customer, a digital license creates an audit trail.

The coronavirus pandemic creates another use case: contactless verification of information. Vanderhoof said the process of showing a driver's license at the airport looks completely different now that exchanging physical objects can spread a highly contagious illness.

"If a person could flash their driver's license information electronically to the TSA agent, there would be no exchange of physical materials, and it would be safer, faster, and create an audit trail for the TSA agent," he said.

Vanderhoof added that the same concerns apply to paying with a credit card at a store.

"People are looking for ways to do things electronically much more so than face to face," he said.

The mDL design also has to address privacy laws about cell phones that generally prevent police officers from searching mobile phones.

 "A mobile driver's license could present a bar code or transmit information to an officer without him having to touch the phone but still being able to do a normal background check," he said.

Vanderhoof said that the project is complex but that all the required technology is available today to do this in a safe and secure way.

"The challenge is pulling it all together in a way that can be managed securely by the issuing  authority," he said.

Once the infrastructure is in place, states also could use the system to digitize other types of licenses, gun permits, and digital voting.

The current challenge is interoperability among the state that issues the digital credentials and all the places this information will be consumed. 
"It's one thing for Oklahoma to issue a mobile driver's license and then give local hospitals and retailers a set of specifications for reading it," he said. "The challenge comes in when you multiply that by 50 states."

In 2016, Idaho, Colorado, Maryland, Wyoming, and Washington D.C. used a NIST grant to test mobile driver's licenses. Colorado was the first state to test a digital license. After going through the standard process at the state DMV, volunteers installed a DigiDL app on their phones and then downloaded the license. Volunteers tested the digital driver's license in stores, the state's lottery claim center, and an art fair.

Oklahoma, Arkansas, Iowa, and Florida are also testing this new form factor for driver's licenses. New Jersey and Texas have passed legislation to start the process. In Louisiana, residents can use the LA Wallet app to store an mDL and use it at traffic stops and to buy alcohol but not to board a plane. Louisiana residents still need the physical card even if they choose to use the digital version. 

Vanderhoof said that there's still a lot of work to be done to implement mDLs in a way that could be authenticated across 50 states and to safely store authentication keys. One immediate requirement is to find a governmental or industry organization to lead the work.

The STA started talking to American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators that represents all of the state driver's licensing agencies.
"Several states started going pilot projects or passing legislation to fund pilots, and we got involved to represent the industry and other stakeholders who would be impacted by this," he said.

These stakeholders include retailers, the federal government, banks, and law enforcement.
 
"We are trying to unite the ecosystem to support states in getting it done securely and based on following the standards," he said.

He added that the AAMVA may fill this role or identify an organization that could. The STA is hosting an mDL webinar on April 30 and planning a website as well.

Also see

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In 2016, Gemalto, a subsidiary of The Thales Group, received a federal grant to fund pilot projects in four states to test digital driver's licenses. This mockup is from the pilot project.

Image: Thales Group

Image: Thales Group
Caption: In 2016, Gemalto, a subsidiary of The Thales Group, received a federal grant to fund pilot projects in four states to test digital driver's licenses. This mockup is from the pilot project.