Digital driver’s licenses are coming to the United States, harnessing biometrics like facial recognition, fingerprints, and iris scanning for security. Iowa in 2019 plans to begin doling out the licenses state-wide, and Delaware, Virginia, Wyoming, and several other states have conducted small pilot studies of the technology.
Rob MikellPhoto: Idemia
This week, the Connect:ID 2018 conference in Washington, D.C. hosted a session on digital driver’s licenses. It included a presentation from Rob Mikell, director of business development for government solutions at Billerica, Mass.-based Idemia—the company charged with supplying Iowa’s digital driver’s license technology. IEEE Spectrum caught up with Mikell after the conference, and asked him to make the case for digital driver’s licenses, also called mobile driver’s licenses. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
IEEE Spectrum: Do you think the adoption of digital driver’s licenses is inevitable?
Rob Mikell: I really do. Having a driver’s license on your cell phone is definitely going to happen. It’s part of the digital transformation where everything is available electronically and on your phone.
Spectrum: So what exactly is a digital driver’s license?
Mikell: I’ll tell you what it’s not. It’s not a simple photograph of your driver’s license on your cell phone. It’s a digital, secured rendering of your driver’s license that is dynamically connected back to the system of record—that would be your state’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).
Spectrum: How is it dynamically connected?
Mikell: It can be updated in real-time, and remotely. Say my license gets suspended. That update comes through immediately. Or say I wake up and it’s my 21st birthday. My license will now be formatted horizontally, rather than vertically. There are also privacy versions of the license. So if, for example, you’re purchasing alcohol, you can show the version that verifies that you’re over 21, without having to reveal your address and other information.
Spectrum: What if someone steals the phone?
Mikell: The app containing the license can only be unlocked with your biometrics. Ours is based on facial recognition. And in the meantime, you could let the DMV know and they could cancel it so that it’s not on your phone anymore. If you compare that to a wallet—if someone steals it, that’s it, they’ve got your license and your personal identifying information.
Spectrum: What equipment do cops need in order to validate the authenticity of a mobile driver’s license?
Mikell: They don’t necessarily need anything. Validation can be done visually, and offline. There’s some movement in the headshot photo that is unique to our system and can be used to validate that it’s authentic. There’s also a touch feature involving a spinning star that follows the user’s touch. If you want to use equipment to authenticate it, you could do that through a barcode scan. We’ve also digitally built in some invisible security features that can be read with another app to prove that it’s authentic.
Spectrum: Take us through a traffic stop scenario with a digital driver’s license.
Mikell: After both vehicles come to a stop, the officer, without getting out of the car, taps a button on his in-car laptop, and it sends out a Bluetooth low-energy encrypted signal that looks for mobile driver’s licenses in close proximity. So he initiates the signal. The person in the vehicle that was stopped turns on their Bluetooth, if it’s not on already, and their app receives that signal, recognizes it as friendly, and the signals do their handshake. The driver’s app notifies the driver that her information has been requested, and asks if she wants to provide it. She can accept or decline. If she accepts, it is sent to the police officer, and the information from her driver’s license appears on the officer's laptop screen. If someone had a sniffer device, they couldn’t intercept it because it’s encrypted and the two signals recognize each other.
Spectrum: Would the officer still have to get out of the vehicle?
Mikell: Yes, but the officer can come out of the vehicle with a lower state of tension because he knows who the person is in the vehicle he’s about to approach. And the person who was stopped knows that it’s a legitimate law enforcement official, and that’s reassuring.
Spectrum: Why not skip the app and equip cops with devices that can directly read a face or fingerprint?
Mikell: On a traffic stop, a police officer wants to be able to identify the driver and any occupants in the vehicle as soon as possible. A digital driver’s license is a way for them to know that [information] from the very beginning. If you have a fingerprint reader, you’re not going to be able to use that until you approach the driver. Plus, law enforcement really doesn’t want to carry extra equipment. There’s limited space on an officer for that, and if they have to hold something in their hand, that can decrease their safety.
Spectrum: What about a microchip, like we use on pets? That could be accessed by Bluetooth.
Mikell: I don’t think our culture is ready to walk around with a microchip. But the driver’s license is part of our culture and a mobile driver’s license is an extension of that, and is here and ready. We’ve just been awarded a contract in the state of Iowa to go live. We’ll be providing that in 2019.
Digital driver’s licenses such as this one are now being tested in a pilot study in Delaware.Image: Idemia
Spectrum: So does that make Iowa the first U.S. state to offer digital driver’s licenses?
Mikell: Yes. We’ve done some pilot projects there previously. We’re doing one now with the state of Delaware.
Spectrum: There are other companies, such as Gemalto, that are developing and testing digital driver’s licenses. If states adopt digital licenses from different providers, does that create a mess for travelers?
Mikell: Interoperability is essential to making this work for society. If the licenses can’t be validated by law enforcement in every state, you haven’t offered a solution that brings value, you’ve just offered a novelty. Standards are being developed. The American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators is the umbrella trade organization for DMVs and they’re working on functional requirements. The International Organization for Standardization has requirements they’re working on, among others. I don’t think any state would invest in a mobile driver’s license if it didn’t offer interoperability.
Spectrum: Are other countries adopting mobile driver’s licenses?
Mikell: There is work in the Netherlands and Brazil and other countries, too.
Spectrum: What’s the difference between a digital driver’s license and digital identity?
Mikell: A mobile driver’s license is something used face-to-face. Digital identity, which we call eID, is an online way of proving you are who you say you are. On a website, for example, where today you might use a password—which is hard to remember and can be stolen—you could click a link that pops up a barcode, scan it with your eID app on your phone, and it would unlock the website.
Spectrum: I kind of like my plastic driver’s license. It’s nostalgic. When will I be expected to switch?
Mikell: This concept is brand new to our culture, so as we make this change, we’ll all be carrying both our physical driver’s licenses and our mobile driver’s licenses. My expectation is that we’ll all still be carrying our physical license for some period of time.
Update 24 October 2018: In July, Louisiana unveiled a new digital driver’s license app called LA Wallet. The app is free to download, though users must pay $5.99 to add their license or legal ID. Iowa still plans to roll out its own version of a digital driver’s license statewide by mid-2019, according to Des Moines Register.
Emily Waltz is a features editor at Spectrum covering power and energy. Prior to joining the staff in January 2024, Emily spent 18 years as a freelance journalist covering biotechnology, primarily for the Nature research journals and Spectrum. Her work has also appeared in Scientific American, Discover, Outside, and the New York Times. Emily has a master's degree from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and an undergraduate degree from Vanderbilt University. With every word she writes, Emily strives to say something true and useful. She posts on Twitter/X @EmWaltz and her portfolio can be found on her website.