Insights & Analyses

Iowa, Idemia prep smartphone-based, Bluetooth-connected digital driver’s licenses for 2019 launch

May 7, 2018

A long-in-the-works plan to bring digital driver’s licenses to citizens in Iowa is heading toward a 2019 public launch, and the company behind the technology has detailed how the system will work to enhance security and safety for both individuals and law enforcement.

Rob Mikell, director of business development at Idemia, spoke with IEEE Spectrum about his company’s digital ID card system, which leverages a user’s smartphone and built-in biometric capabilities to replace the physical driver’s license.

Mikell walked through a typical traffic stop, and how a connected license could make it safer and more secure for all parties involved. He described a system where a police officer would be able to request, digitally, to see the driver’s identification from a laptop in their squad car. The citizen would then be able to authorize or decline the request, and in the process would know that the officer in the police car is, in fact, an law enforcement agent.

Idemia’s system leverages Bluetooth Low Energy to securely transfer and validate the digital driver’s license, letting the officer also know exactly who they are about to engage with before they approach the vehicle.

Like a physical ID comes with security precautions that are difficult to replicate, the Idemia service includes unique elements such as movement in the person’s headshot photo, and dynamic touchscreen features that can help prove the digital driver’s license is authentic.

Mikell also touted how being connected can further enhance both security and convenience. Consider milestones, like moving to a new home or celebrating a 21st birthday, that could be easily reflected on a digital ID pushed out to the phone over the internet by the state-run issuing agency. Or if a user has had their license suspended, a digital ID could immediately reflect that and help keep them off the road.

He also noted that a digital ID can dynamically update to enhance privacy, allowing someone to prove they are of legal drinking age without needing to reveal their name or address. IDs will also be secured with facial recognition biometrics, leveraging the technology already built into the user’s smartphone.

Idemia, formerly known as MorphoTrust USA, has been working on Iowa’s digital driver’s license program for some time. It started with a 100-employee pilot program at the Iowa Department of Transportation in 2016.

In all, at least 10 U.S. states are planning for or considering digital, smartphone-based ID cards for drivers. But Iowa’s work thus far is expected make it the first in America to offer a statewide digital driver’s license platform, coming in 2019.

OWI Take: The ubiquity of smartphones makes them a logical home for digital, secure, and connected driver’s licenses. Transitioning to digital IDs will be a slow process for a number of reasons, including reliance on existing infrastructure built around physical ID cards. But the advantages of digital identification for both citizens and governments are numerous, making it feel inevitable that most states in America — and elsewhere around the world — will look to at least give citizens the option of a smartphone-based ID.