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State to Test Digital Driver’s Licenses, but Some Cite Privacy Concerns

Jeremy Grant, coordinator of the Better Identity Coalition, said some government officials, especially those in law enforcement, would love to use digital licenses for tracking.

Are Californians ready for yet another new version of the driver’s license?

The last one — called “Real ID” — went over about as well as CNN+. As of April, less than half of the state's drivers had obtained one, even though Californians will need a Real ID or a passport to get on a plane or enter a federal building in a year. The tepid reaction may stem from the fact that these IDs offer no new benefits to drivers, just another time-consuming obligation.

Now the California Department of Motor Vehicles is planning to test a version called a mobile driver’s license or digital ID — an identity-verifying credential stored on your smartphone. And unlike Real ID, a mobile license could give you more control over your personal information, although critics say a poorly designed system would threaten your privacy.

Louisiana, Colorado and Arizona already have rolled out mobile licenses, and Utah is testing them. Yet the technology is still in its early days, experts say, with some key pieces unfinished.

The easiest way to understand the push for change, though, is to consider the problems with conventional driver’s licenses.

The 9/11 terrorists used fraudulently obtained state IDs to board the planes they hijacked, putting an exclamation point on the vulnerabilities of physical ID cards. That day’s events prompted the federal government to pass the Real ID Act in 2005, which set higher standards for how licenses were designed and issued. The goal was to deter the cards from being counterfeited or obtained by people who were not legal residents.

Real ID was no panacea, however. While the watermarks and other design features were hard to copy, they were also hard for the untrained eye to recognize. You almost have to be a security expert to detect them, Eric Jorgensen, director of Arizona's Motor Vehicle Division, said.

And like all physical IDs, conventional licenses are not much help when it comes to verifying your identity on the Internet. They're not useless — see, for example, how uses licenses and smartphone cameras to verify identities online. But you have to jump through a lot of hoops on the web to prove that the ID card you're using actually belongs to you, and the process is still vulnerable to scamming.

Another problem with physical ID cards is that they can share too much information. When that creepy bouncer at the nightclub door demands proof that you're old enough to enter, you can't just show him the birthdate on your license. You have to show him the whole thing. In addition, the information laminated into permanence on a physical ID is not, itself, permanently accurate. And finally, even a counterfeit-proof, updated ID card can’t confirm that it belongs to the person who obtained it.

The shortcomings of driver’s licenses are part of a larger problem with how people go about answering the question “Who are you?” It’s an even bigger challenge online, where identity theft has risen sharply over the past decade. The need for something more secure than ID cards and the ubiquitous login-password combo has inspired numerous companies and inter-industry groups, such as the Better Identity Coalition and the Fast Identity Online Alliance, to promote more reliable ways to verify identity.

In response, the tech world is steadily shifting toward solutions based on “multifactor authentication.” A password is one factor — something only you know. An ID card is a single factor, too — something you have. Multifactor authentication is some combination of something you know, something you have and something you are, such as a fingerprint or facial scan.

That’s the approach taken by a mobile driver’s license app. It uses the biometric capabilities of your smartphone to tie your mobile driver's license or ID to your device. For certain uses, you could even require a passcode.

Proponents of mobile driver’s licenses say a system built around the technical standard published last year by the International Organization for Standardization addresses all of the shortcomings of a physical license. One caveat is that the IOS standard now covers only in-person use; the standards for online use are still in development.

The two states first out of the gate with mobile license apps — Louisiana and Colorado — acted before the IOS standard was complete, limiting their licenses’ interoperability. At this point, Colorado’s app is accepted by that state’s agencies and police officers, and Louisiana’s works with government agencies, state liquor stores and other app users.

To enable broader use of mobile licenses, the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, a trade group of DMV officials from across the country, has issued guidelines for mobile driver’s licenses built around the IOS standard. And in keeping with a 2020 law, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is working on ways to verify IDs electronically, using the same standard. The Transportation Security Administration has started supporting standards-based mobile licenses in Apple’s wallet app.

Vittorio Bertocci of Okta, whose technology helps businesses verify identities, said that after two decades working on identity issues, “probably for the first time, I see that the standards and the technology are mature enough to give a good base, a good foundation” for mobile ID. “And I see the desire, the investment, from governments,” said Bertocci, who is a principal architect with the company.

The fact that there is an international standard doesn’t mean every country is using it. Although the U.S. is building around the standard, Bertocci said that European countries are taking a different approach. Nor does everyone have a smartphone or tablet. That's why every mobile license rolled out in the U.S. so far has been a complement to a physical ID, not a replacement for it.

More fundamentally, the notion of shifting IDs from physical to digital is troubling to some privacy advocates. Among other things, they’re worried that companies and governments will find a way to use digital licenses to track your movements and learn something about your personal life.

Still, Alexis Hancock, director of engineering for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said the standard for digital licenses includes a way for the app to stay in touch with the agency that issued it, and “it doesn't really effectively address how to limit this.”

Jeremy Grant, coordinator of the Better Identity Coalition, said some government officials, especially those in law enforcement, would love to use digital licenses for tracking. And the consequences could be severe: Imagine, Grant said, if licenses could report when a woman went to an out-of-state abortion clinic.

But that kind of tracking can’t happen in a properly designed system, he said. Each mobile license will come with the state’s encrypted digital signature. When you share information from your license, the verifying device checks only to see whether the digital signature is valid — if so, your ID and the data on it are valid. “They can get a yes/no answer without the state knowing it was you,” Grant said.

Beyond that, a standards-based mobile license doesn’t transmit a unique identifier when it shares its data. So again, there are no electronic footprints to connect the mobile ID used at nightclub X or brewery Y to the person to whom it belonged.

Before moving forward with mobile licenses, Hancock said, governments need to work through a number of issues that could be raised by putting IDs on smartphones filled with sensitive personal information. For example, she said, what happens if a traffic cop or TSA agent demands that you hand over your unlocked phone for an ID check, even though they can get the information they need from your mobile license without you doing so? What safeguards are there against your phone being unlawfully searched?

Some privacy advocates want to spread out the storage of ID data online, using blockchain or other distributed ledger technology, rather than having it centralized in one state database. Each piece of a person’s identity information — name, birthdate, address, picture, etc. — would be stored separately so it could be checked independently of the others. That would reduce the risk of a massive data leak while also ensuring that the government keeps no record of where and when the digital IDs are used.

A bill by state Sen. Bob Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys), SB 1190, would require California by Jan. 1, 2024, to “provide industry standards and best practices” regarding the issuance of verifiable credentials for individuals and businesses.

State lawmakers authorized the DMV last year to do a trial run with mobile driver’s licenses and ID cards, giving the department a year to come up with a timeline and cost estimate for the pilot project. At this point, the department is still talking to multiple vendors about possible approaches, with no date set for the launch of any pilots, the department said in an email.

The department declined to say how it would respond to the concerns expressed by privacy advocates. But the authorizing legislation, which lawmakers tucked into a 2021-22 budget trailer bill, laid out a number of mandatory protections for people taking part in the trial, including:
  • No forced participation. Only volunteers will be included in the trial, which is limited to 0.5 percent of the state’s licensed drivers, or about 135,000 people.
  • No tracking or data mining by your app. Your digital license or ID card and the corresponding mobile app are barred from collecting or holding any information beyond what’s needed to perform their stated functions, “including, but not limited to, any information related to movement or location.”
  • No sneaky license checks. Before your mobile ID app responds to any request for information, you would have to approve the release of any amount of information.
  • No warrantless searches. You cannot be forced to hand over your device in order to verify your ID, nor do you consent to having your device searched if you use it to verify your ID.
  • No extra data provided. The information that can be released by the app is limited to what’s on your physical driver’s license or ID card.

Ultimately, the success of a mobile license will depend on how widely it’s adopted — not just by drivers, but by anyone who asks for your ID. There’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem, Jorgensen said, because there’s not much incentive for companies to build apps that support mobile IDs if few people are using them, and states and their residents won’t have much incentive to adopt mobile IDs if there aren’t many places that accept them.

Yet there are plenty of other factors driving interest in digital IDs among state governments and businesses, particularly national ones. And millions of Americans have already gotten a taste of how their smartphones can be used to verify personal details — they’ve been using them over the past year to prove their vaccination status.

There’s a long way still to go on mobile driver’s licenses, though, with basic questions still to be answered about where identity credentials will be stored and how identity will be verified online. At the current pace, Grant said, it will take 10 to 15 years for mobile IDs to get to critical mass.

Californians are likely to have access to one well before that.

©2022 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.