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Here’s how digital IDs will come to the iPhone and Apple Watch

Several states will soon let residents store a digital driver’s license in an iPhone or Apple Watch for use at airport security, during traffic stops, and in bars.

Here’s how digital IDs will come to the iPhone and Apple Watch
[Images: Apple]
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For Apple users, at least, the days of fumbling with a driver’s license at airport security may be coming to a close.

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Apple says that Arizona and Georgia will be the first states to allow residents to create a digital copy of their driver’s license (or state ID). That’s the necessary first step before travelers can present such an ID at the TSA line.

Apple announced support for digital driver’s licenses at its Worldwide Developers Conference in June, and has been working with the states, their motor vehicles departments, and the Transportation Security Administration to make sure all parties support the new functionality.

While Arizona and Georgia will be the first states ready to support digital IDs, Apple says that Connecticut, Iowa, Maryland, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Utah will soon follow.

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[Photo: Apple]
Apple’s version of a mobile driver’s license will be stored in the Apple Wallet in iOS or WatchOS. At a TSA security checkpoint, you’ll bring your phone or watch close to an ID terminal, prompting the two devices to form a wireless connection via the near-field communication (NFC) radios in each. The terminal will request a subset of the data contained in the digital driver’s license, and those data elements then appear in a list on the screen of your device. To protect your privacy, the device will ask for your permission to transfer the data (via Bluetooth). One of the data elements is your driver’s license photo, which TSA agents can see on their screen.

Apple says its digital driver’s license is based on a common standard (officially known as ISO 18013-5) agreed upon by all parties that may have to rely on it. The applications are beginning with airport security, but will eventually include a number of institutions that want to see ID for various reasons, such as law enforcement agencies, financial institutions, online service providers, and businesses like liquor stores and bars that need to verify age. Apple Wallet’s release of ID data is on a need-to-know basis: Some requestors may need a lot, while others might need only a little. For example, a law enforcement agency may require the user’s image and information about height, weight, and eye and hair color, while a bar may need only a date of birth.

For law enforcement, this will be a bit of a paradigm shift. Officers have demanded licenses from motorists and others forever, and have accessed whatever data from them they pleased. Soon, they’ll likely use some sort of mobile device to pull driver’s license data from smartphones or smartwatches, and the citizens they’ve detained will have some power over what data is handed over.

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From plastic to digital

When you request a digital version of your driver’s license, the DMV will ask you for images of the front of your physical driver’s license, the back (which contains a barcode), as well as a selfie. Apple adds an extra layer of privacy protection by requiring you to provide an additional scan of your fingerprint or face via Touch ID or Face ID, depending on your device’s authentication hardware. This is to prove that the person using the digital ID is actually the owner of the device and the ID.

Google’s Android operating system will also support mobile IDs, but in a different way. Rather than building a digital driver’s license component into the OS, Google introduced a new “Identity Credential” API, or application programming interface, in Android 11 that supports the ISO 18013-5 standard and allows states to develop their own digital ID apps. But so far no states have adopted apps built on that API.

It remains unclear when airports in Arizona and Georgia will launch support for the new Apple digital IDs. Both states have passed laws allowing the use of mobile driver’s licenses, but the TSA may need more time to finish development of its ID terminals. It will be a long process to get all stakeholders up and running in all states—possibly as long as a decade.

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But Apple has the money and the time to push digital driver’s licenses into wide use, just as it’s done with Apple Pay, which got off to a slow start but is now widely used by Apple device owners and merchants.

Digital driver’s license support is an especially important development for Apple Watch. Apple has long had a vision for the Watch to act as a sort of all-purpose digital passkey to the world, unlocking everything from public transportation to hotel rooms to work facilities. The company has made real progress toward that ideal, and digital ID represents one of its bigger steps.

About the author

Fast Company Senior Writer Mark Sullivan covers emerging technology, politics, artificial intelligence, large tech companies, and misinformation. An award-winning San Francisco-based journalist, Sullivan's work has appeared in Wired, Al Jazeera, CNN, ABC News, CNET, and many others.

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