A young woman sits at a bar on Bourbon Street in New Orleans and orders a beer. The bartender asks for identification. The bar patron pulls out her phone, clicks on an app, and displays a digital version of her driver’s license showing she is over 21. In response, the bartender pulls out her own phone, clicks on the same app, uses it to scan the woman’s digital license, and verifies that her information is legit.
This is a scene likely to become more common in Louisiana pubs in the coming months as residents adopt the state’s new digital driver’s license app LA Wallet. Next week, Louisiana’s Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control is expected to announce that bars, restaurants, grocery stores and other retailers are allowed accept LA Wallet as proof of age, according to the app’s developer, Envoc.
Louisiana’s Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control did not immediately respond to Spectrum’s request for confirmation of the planned announcement.
The Baton Rouge-based company launched LA Wallet in June, after two years of collaboration with state officials. But so far only law enforcement officers making routine traffic stops are required to accept the digital driver’s license. Next week’s announcement would greatly broaden the scope of the app’s use.
About 71,000 people have downloaded LA Wallet so far, says Calvin Fabre, founder and president of Envoc. The app costs $5.99 in the Google Play and Apple App stores.
Users buy it, create an account with some basic information from their physical driver’s license, and create a password. That’s it. No biometric security—like iris scans or facial recognition—required.
The app links back to Louisiana’s Office of Motor Vehicles database, which completes the digital license with the user’s photo and additional information. Any changes to the license, like a suspension or renewal, are updated immediately in the app with a wireless network connection.
To present the license—say, to a cop during a traffic stop—the driver (hoping his phone battery isn’t dead) opens the app with a password, shows the cop the digital license image, and authenticates it by pressing and holding the screen to reveal a security seal. The license can be flipped over to show a scannable bar code on the back.
There’s also a handy security feature that allows anyone with the LA Wallet app to authenticate another person’s Louisiana digital driver’s license. In our Bourbon Street bar scenario, the bartender and the young woman would use the app’s “VerifyYou” feature.
It allows the bar patron to select which information she would like to reveal to the bartender—in this case, simply the fact that she is over 21. That information is displayed on the phone with a photo and embedded QR code. The bartender scans the code with her app, which tells her that the woman seated on the other side of the bar is indeed over 21. None of the customer’s personal information, such as her name, birth date, or address, is displayed or stored on the bartender’s phone.
Together, the VerifyYou feature and the security seal make the digital driver’s license hard to fake. That’s because the cryptography is time-based and can only be used once. What’s more, all verification transactions between the app and the state’s databases occur in under two seconds, says Fabre.
Could this mean the end of underage drinking in New Orleans bars? It would certainly make fake IDs harder to come by. “Fake [physical] IDs are rampant because all you need to do is encode fake information into plastic or into a barcode,” says Fabre.
It is possible, however, to steal someone’s identity with the LA Wallet system. Consider all the businesses that copy or scan their customers’ driver’s licenses. An impersonator could get a hold of a pile of these, choose a license picturing a person with similar physical features, open an LA Wallet account, input the information, and quickly be the holder of someone else’s digital driver’s license. Off to the liquor store goes the 18-year-old.
“Of course, you wouldn’t look the same and that’s why the picture is very prominent in the VerifyYou” feature, says Fabre. “There’s a way to make [people] go to the DMV and marry the [app] to the [physical] license,” he says, but the state chose not to pursue that in its adoption plan, he says.
Louisiana is one of many U.S. states pursuing digital, or mobile, driver’s licenses. Iowa, Delaware, Idaho, Colorado, Maryland, Washington D.C. and Wyoming have all allowed pilot studies of the technology. The American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators is developing standards to guide them and their app development partners, but has not yet completed those specifications.
Iowa might be next in the U.S., with a digital ID program set to launch statewide in late 2019. Its app is being developed by augmented identity provider Idemia, which is also testing it in Delaware. One way Idemia’s app differs from LA Wallet is that it can communicate wirelessly with software carried in law enforcement patrol cars.
That means a cop could pull over a driver, and via a bluetooth connection, ping the driver’s digital license and pull up his information, all before leaving the patrol car. That lets the officer know who he has pulled over, and tells the driver that the officer is legit.
The driver can choose to accept or deny the police officer’s request for his digital driver’s license information.
That design, allowing police to connect to drivers’ digital licenses from their patrol cars, came by request from state police, Fabre says. Police don’t want to touch the driver’s phone, for various practical and legal reasons. So, running a driver’s license through his system requires physically writing down the seven-digit license number, then taking that back to his patrol car to punch it in and begin the database search, Fabre says.
So far, says Fabre, the launch of LA Wallet has taken off without a major glitch—although he is frustrated with negative feedback in the app stores. “You get trolls that go onto Apple and Google Play...and put negative ratings on it” without understanding the app, he says.
One reviewer, who gave LA Wallet one star, wrote: “Another way for our corrupt state to get more money out of its over taxed and over fee [sic] citizens.” (The $5.99 app fee actually goes to Envoc, and the state gets the benefits—and headaches—of digital driver’s licenses at no cost. The fee is good for the life of license, which in Louisiana is usually six years).
Fabre says responding to online vitriol has been challenging. “The product is the face of the state, so we have to respond in the voice of the state,” he says. “There was a lot of work we did with the state to capture their voice and make sure we’re not speaking out of turn or getting too emotionally involved when someone is insulting our product.”
One of the challenges of launching a digital driver’s license is getting all the major players on board. In Louisiana, that included collaborating with state police, the state’s general counsel, the Louisiana Department of Public Safety, and the Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control.
And more collaborations must be forged. Moving forward, Envoc is working with elections officials and banks. “How do you open a bank account [with a digital driver's license] if the bank is used to copying a physical license and putting it in a file? How do you change those processes, which are mandated [by federal bank regulators], to now support a digital driver’s license that you can’t copy?” asks Fabre. “Those are the challenges, and luckily we have a head start on them.”
Emily Waltz is a contributing editor at Spectrum covering the intersection of technology and the human body. Her favorite topics include electrical stimulation of the nervous system, wearable sensors, and tiny medical robots that dive deep into the human body. She has been writing for Spectrum since 2012, and for the Nature journals since 2005. Emily has a master's degree from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and an undergraduate degree from Vanderbilt University. She aims to say something true and useful in every story she writes. Contact her via @EmWaltz on Twitter or through her website.