Apple’s Digital ID Initiative Still Has a Long Road Ahead

iOS 15 Digital IDs in Wallet Credit: Apple
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Earlier this week, we got a closer peek at how Apple’s new Digital IDs in iOS 15 will actually work. As cool as this new technology is, it’s likely going to take a few years before you can leave your wallet at home.

At this stage, iOS 15’s Digital ID feature, which will let you store a verifiable electronic version of your driver’s license or other state ID, is only rolling out in a total of eight U.S. states, and the Digital IDs themselves will only be usable at a handful of airport TSA checkpoints.

If you’re fortunate enough to live in Arizona or Georgia, you could be able to get your driver’s license encoded into Apple Wallet as soon as next month. However, you won’t be able to do much more than look at it unless you’re planning to travel by air.

Other states, including Connecticut, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Oklahoma, and Utah, are expected to come on board later this year. It’s also likely that the Digital ID feature won’t find its way into your iPhone’s Wallet app until iOS 15.1 arrives.

It may sound like the feature is rolling out at a relatively glacial pace. But it’s also important to understand that, unlike the introduction of Apple Pay six years ago, Apple is breaking entirely new ground here.

Consider that Apple Pay came into a world where contactless payment technology already existed, simply shifting the payment method from a plastic card to a mobile device. Even though contactless payment terminals were relatively rare in the U.S. back then, Apple Pay worked with the same terminals used to tap the physical cards.

In fact, this resulted in Apple Pay being usable at retailers in many countries where it hadn’t otherwise been rolled out. For example, even when Apple Pay was exclusive to the U.S., travelers to Canada could tap their iPhone or Apple Watch at payment terminals found at just about any retailer north of the border, where contactless payments had been widely accepted for years.

In other words, Apple Pay just worked with the technology that was already available, and it wasn’t long before many of us were leaving our physical credit cards behind in favor of Apple’s easier and more secure mobile payment technology.

By contrast, the very idea of using a digital ID is in the nascent stages. Over the past few years, some local governments have experimented with these by partnering with third-party app developers. Still, even in those cases, the resulting digital IDs don’t yet amount to much.

As Apple’s current initiative demonstrates, it’s one thing to get a digital ID onto your iPhone, but it’s quite another to find somewhere to actually use it.

After all, the key point of digital IDs is to be verifiable while avoiding the need to hand your iPhone over to someone. Your iPhone never leaves your hand during an Apple Pay transaction, and it’s Apple’s intent for your Digital IDs to be presented in the same way.

Although Apple is using an open standard for Digital IDs, known as the ISO 18013-5 mDL (mobile driver’s license) standard, it hasn’t gotten much uptake from government regulators. It’s actually a considerable accomplishment that Apple has managed to get as many state governments on board as it has since there’s a lot of hesitancy to adopting new technology like this.

Since so much of this initiative depends on government involvement, it’s likely going to be a decade or more before you can actually leave your driver’s license behind and go out with just your iPhone.

None of the participating states have any plans yet to share other ways to use their Digital IDs. However, it’s fair to say that you won’t be able to pull out your iPhone and show it to a cop on the side of the road — and you probably wouldn’t want to anyway. They’ll still expect you to hand over a physical driver’s license. It’s not hard to imagine portable terminals being used to scan Digital IDs, but we’re a very long way from that point.

What’s the Point of Digital IDs?

Of course, new technology has to start somewhere, and as Apple demonstrated with Apple Pay six years ago, if you build it, they will come.

Although countries like Canada and most of Europe had been swimming in NFC contactless payment technology for years, only two percent of U.S. retailers supported it when Apple Pay arrived on the scene in 2015.

However, Apple drove the adoption of contactless payments from behind. While retailers had other compelling reasons to upgrade their terminals as well, as more customers insisted on support for Apple Pay, it slowly but surely moved the needle ahead.

Apple has the power and customer base to make the same moves with Digital IDs, and while it won’t happen nearly as fast as it will with Apple Pay, as there’s a lot more inertia to overcome, getting a major agency like the TSA on board is a great start. This will push more state governments to adopt their own digital IDs to avoid getting left behind, and once those digital IDs exist, the services will grow up around them.

Everyday citizens will ultimately benefit from being able to ditch the physical ID and having much more control over when and how their personal information is handed over.

For example, presenting your Digital ID to a terminal will result in a prompt showing you who is asking for it and exactly what pieces of information they want. An agency like the TSA will need to know your name, date of birth, and see your photo, while a liquor store only needs to verify you’re old enough to purchase alcohol — they don’t even need to know your name.

Apple has also designed the Digital ID system so that only the owner of the ID can present it. For example, unlike an Apple Pay card, you won’t be able to present your Digital ID with a passcode. On Touch ID devices like the iPhone SE, you’ll only be able to register it to work with a single fingerprint — the one used to enroll the ID in the first place.

This means that technically speaking, most places shouldn’t even need to see the photo on your ID since only the ID owner can unlock it in the first place.

There’s a lot that has to happen before we get to this point, however. Even if every U.S. state government got on board tomorrow, they’d also have to pass the necessary regulations to allow businesses to accept it as a form of ID. Those businesses would then have to install the necessary terminals to read Digital IDs, which would cost money and require employees to be trained.

Likewise, police departments, which are mostly independent entities in the U.S., would also have to implement a digital ID system, generally at their own expense. Plus, a cop could still insist that you provide a physical ID at a traffic stop unless laws were passed that said otherwise.

It’s also worth keeping in mind that there are very few financial incentives to push businesses or even law enforcement agencies to switch to using Digital IDs. In the case of Apple Pay, there were convenience, security, and fraud prevention issues that helped drive the adoption of contactless payment terminals. Still, there’s little upside for most private businesses when it comes to adopting the technology to handle Digital IDs.

Needless to say, we think it’s gonna be a long, long time before you can truly ditch your physical ID card and rely on your iPhone, but that doesn’t mean we’re not looking forward to what this new iOS 15 feature will bring to the table.

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