Your driver’s license could soon live on your phone. Here’s what you should know.

Smartphones have become convenient places to store theater tickets, boarding passes, credit cards and even proof of vaccination. Now, after years of debate and testing, you may soon be able to carry digital versions of your driver’s license on your phone, too.

More than 20 states have either considered, tested or already launched digital versions of driver’s licenses that live on smartphones. And tech giant Apple plans to make digital licenses a key feature in its iOS 15 smartphone software in “late 2021”. So far, the state governments of Arizona, Connecticut, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Oklahoma and Utah are signaling support for the feature.

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This means there’s a good chance you’ll eventually be able to flash your phone to police officers when you get caught doing 30 mph in a school zone, or as proof of your age when you step into a bar. In some cases, you’ll even be able to show your phone to Transportation Security Administration agents in an airport security line. Carrying your physical license or state ID with you is still a good idea, but soon, you may not have to worry about the consequences of leaving it at home. Nonetheless, there are also downsides to these convenient digital licenses – and some of them are serious.

For those thinking about digitizing their licenses, let us walk you through the basics and weigh the pros and cons.

– What is a digital driver’s license?

They’re exactly what they sound like: nonphysical versions of a common form of state identification. Considering how many Americans carry smartphones with them – about 85 percent of us, according to Pew Research Center – these digital IDs are mostly designed to live on iPhones and Android devices. You might also hear people refer to them as a “mobile driver’s license” or “MDL.”

Apple’s adoption of digital licenses is a big deal when you consider how many people own iPhones. Research firm Strategy Analytics says the company accounts for 37 percent of all smartphones shipped in the United States. But Apple isn’t far from the only company working on this.

Google has been working to build support for verifiable electronic IDs into Android and teamed up with Apple and others to define a technical standard for how these IDs should work. The code for it technically already exists in Android 11 and 12, but the company hasn’t announced plans to store digital state IDs in any of its apps yet.

So, how do you actually get your driver’s license onto a compatible smartphone? The details can vary, but most systems we’ve seen rely on the same initial steps because they comply with a technical standard Apple, Google, and others have worked on for years . First, you fire up the app, then scan the front and back of your physical driver’s license. Then, you verify your identity by taking a selfie. Once all of that checks out, you should be ready to go.

Of course, not everyone carries around a smartphone. If that’s you, don’t worry: there’s no evidence to suggest the classic, physical cards you get from the DMV are disappearing anytime soon.

In fact, it’s almost certainly worth carrying your actual license with you, even if you do choose to keep a copy on your phone. States like Delaware and Arizona, which have already launched mobile ID apps, insist that their digital driver’s licenses are companions to physical ones, not replacements.

– Are digital licenses coming to my state?

Short answer: probably! Slightly longer answer: It depends on what kind of digital license we’re talking about.

Residents of Arizona and Georgia will be the first in the country who can store their driver’s licenses in Apple’s Wallet app, followed by people in Connecticut, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Oklahoma and Utah. (That said, no one knows exactly when any of those rollouts will actually start.)

But remember: There are more options than just Apple’s version. In fact, some states have been quietly offering digital licenses already. Residents of Arizona, Delaware and Oklahoma use license apps developed in partnership with Idemia, a company best known for providing technology to the TSA for its PreCheck frequent traveler program. (Alabama also worked Idemia for its digital licenses, but uses relies on the company’s eID app instead of an app built specifically for the state.)

Louisiana, meanwhile, tapped Baton Rouge-based Envoc to develop the LA Wallet app for digital licenses as well as proof of vaccination status, and Colorado’s myColorado app works much the same way.

But those states aren’t the only ones thinking of offering digital licenses. Lawmakers in states like Illinois, New Jersey, Texas, California and Missouri have proposed digital driver’s license projects, though legislatures haven’t adopted them yet. And other states, including Florida, Iowa, Maryland, Utah and Virginia, have conducted pilot programs for digital IDs – or plan to soon – but haven’t adopted them fully.

– What are the benefits of using a digital ID?

The main draw for most people is convenience. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve left my apartment with my phone but not my wallet.

In some cases, using a digital copy of your driver’s license gives you more control over your personal information. Apple still hasn’t completely explained how the driver’s license storage function works in iOS 15’s Wallet app, but noted in a news release that – at least where the TSA is concerned – “just the required information is shared” with whomever is checking it.

Other mobile driver’s license apps, like the ones developed for use in Arizona, Delaware and Oklahoma, give you the option of generating what’s called a “Privacy View” – a QR code that shares pertinent data when scanned. Imagine the bouncer outside a bar is giving off sketchy vibes. Rather than handing over your driver’s license, which contains your full address, a scannable Privacy View will only share the information that confirms you’re over the legal drinking age.

Which leads us to another benefit of digital licenses: the way digital licenses are designed means you should never have to hand your phone over to someone, even a police officer, the way you would with a physical ID. Instead, that officer – or bouncer, or liquor store clerk – should have to scan your digital license with a gadget of their own that requests the proper information from your phone, or from the entity that issued that ID in the first place.

– What are the downsides?

Smartphones are already repositories for some of our most personal data, and now we’re getting the option to feed them even more of it. That has some people rightfully concerned.

Imagine you get pulled over for speeding – ugh. If you’re only carrying a digital license stored on an iPhone or Android phone, Apple and Google say you shouldn’t have to hand your device over to the police. But what’s stopping the officer from insisting on taking your phone anyway?

Realistically, not much at the moment, apart from the officer’s willingness to go by the book.

In Colorado – which launched a digital license feature in the official myColorado app in late 2019 – state troopers say they’re trained to avoid handling people’s phones. Meanwhile, Louisiana has a statute on the books that says displaying a digital driver’s license “shall not serve as consent or authorization for a law enforcement officer, or any other person, to search, view, or access any other data or a
pplication on the mobile device.” Until other states using digital license systems get similar laws on the books, the most we can hope for is that the officers who pull us over stick to the rules.

As these digital IDs become more readily available, some are concerned that they could be used for tracking. In a report published in May, the American Civil Liberties Union warned that state motor vehicle departments could feasibly collect information about “every bar, club, casino, office lobby, bank, pharmacy, doctor’s office, and airport that you visit.” That starts to sound even worse if your state’s DMV has an agreement in place to share that information with local police – a practice the ACLU says is common.

The list of potential issues isn’t just limited to privacy concerns, either. Digital license owners might face a learning curve as they start to use these new forms of ID, but so will the people around them.

Since 2015, Alabama residents who renew their licenses online can choose to receive a digital version they can store on their smartphones. Nearly four years after they were introduced, though, a report from WNHT News 19 in Huntsville suggested that they were so infrequently used that businesses often didn’t recognize them when someone did try.

Another issue could crop up when you set out on your next long drive. Let’s say you’re an Oklahoman and you’re only carrying a digital license. If you cross the border north into Kansas and get pulled over, you might be out of luck since that state doesn’t have any kind of digital license system in place.

These problems don’t sound great – and they aren’t – but you shouldn’t panic just yet. There’s still time to contact your state’s lawmakers if you want to make sure they address these issues. And if all else fails, remember one thing: Nothing has to change for you. Just keep carrying your physical license as usual, and feel free to sit out this technological advance for a while.

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