The Digital Driver License – Do we need it?

Apple has just introduced a digital driver license in Arizona. It’s the first state where drivers can add their driver license to their iPhone and not be required to carry a physical license. Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Hawaii, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma, Puerto Rico, and Utah. are currently working on doing much the same.

On the surface it sounds like a good idea – moving the contents of our wallet to our phone. But, in this case, I think it’s just the opposite. While it’s convenient to use your phone to store boarding passes, credit cards and membership cards, a digital license seems to be a solution that’s not needed and, moreover, creates unneccesary complexity and confusion compared to what we do now.

Our license is often something we hand over or show to another, whether it be a TSA agent, a law enforcement agent, bartender – essentially anytime we need to prove our identity or age.

When the license only exists in digital form, there needs to be workarounds and special equipment that lets you show your license without allowing other information on your phone to be accessed.

Apple described how this would work at a TSA checkpoint:

“Once added to Wallet, users can present their driver license or state ID to the TSA at participating airport security checkpoints by simply tapping their iPhone or Apple Watch at the identity reader. On their iPhone or Apple Watch, users will be shown which information is requested by the TSA, and can consent to provide it with Face ID or Touch ID, without having to unlock their iPhone or show their ID card. All information is shared digitally, so users do not need to show or hand over their device to present their ID. The TSA will also capture a picture of the traveler for verification purposes.”

So, to use your digital license, a special “identity reader” is required to tell you the information that it intends to read. You touch the phone to the reader, read what it displays and authorize it using your Face ID or Touch ID. Will those readers be available wherever you travel? In other states and other countries? If not, your license is either unavailable or you’ll need to allow others to access your phone.

Compare this to what we do now: We present a laminated card that is separate and apart from our phone. The agent checks your photo, birth or expiration date, and you’re done. It all can be done in a second or two without requiring a special reader, giving consent and using Face ID. And, most importantly, you don’t leave a picture of yourself behind, as you are required to do when using the digital license at a TSA checkpoint.

Apple seems to be aware of this issue when it noted, “We’ve asked the TSA for details on where those photos might be stored, how they can ensure they stay private, and if the photos will be deleted after a certain period of time.”

And once your digital license is enabled to provide one piece of data, there will be few limitations. Customs may want your address book, a police checkpoint may want your recent location data.

Now I’m all for progress. It’s convenient to add my boarding pass to my iPhone’s digital wallet. And yes, the driver license seems like the natural next step. But there’s a big difference. If you can’t access your digital boarding pass due to a dead battery or a defective phone, it’s easy to get a paper version. If you can’t access your proof of identity, you can’t board your flight.

The best I can say for the digital license is that it’s a useful way to back up your physical license. I’ll continue to carry my real license with me and not depend on my phone. Clearly, it’s in Apple’s interest to turn the iPhone into a digital wallet, but it’s doing it because it can, not because there’s a need.

In spite of all this, the eventual outcome is clear. Our licenses will eventually become digital, stored on our phones, and technology will once again add a bit of extra complication to our lives. Just like using an app to turn on a light.

by Phil Baker