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Over the past few years, Apple has been working to turn the iPhone into a full digital replacement for your wallet, beginning with Apple Pay back in 2014 and arguably culminating with this year’s addition of Digital ID cards to Apple’s Wallet app in iOS 15.
It’s the next big step in getting everything we need stored on our iPhone, but there’s little doubt that it’s a massive undertaking. With Apple Pay, Apple had to get the credit card companies, banks, and retailers on board, but that’s a walk in the park compared to what it’s going to take to get government agencies to the point where digital forms of drivers licenses and other government-issued ID cards will be universally accepted.
Fortunately, Apple is undaunted by the challenge, and clearly recognizes that a journey of a thousand miles has to begin with a few baby steps. While the company certainly has much bigger ambitions for Digital IDs, it’s content to start small and be satisfied with what it can achieve now rather than shooting for the moon right out of the gate.
For instance, at this point the only agency that will even accept Digital IDs in Apple Wallet is the TSA, where it can be used to present your ID at airport checkpoints — and it could be months before it even begins rolling out to more than a handful of major airports.
Although there’s surely more to come, Apple isn’t talking about any other specific plans it may have for Digital ID, which is understandable as it has its work cut out for it. Not only does Apple need to warm up other government agencies to the very idea of secure digital IDs in the first place, but it also has to persuade them that Apple’s solution is the best way to do it. Then there’s the matter of convincing government officials to invest the necessary time and resources to make it happen.
After all, Apple’s Digital IDs are not designed to be verified visually. Instead, they rely on the same NFC technology as Apple Pay to present your Digital ID electronically and securely.
This means that the Digital ID cards that go into Apple Wallet have to be verified and authenticated on the way in — before they’re even stored in Apple Wallet. Once there, anybody who wants to verify them needs a compatible terminal to read this information, which is encrypted within the iPhone’s Secure Enclave.
For now, getting the TSA on board is already a pretty big win, particularly considering that Apple also still needs to convince individual states to issue drivers licenses and other state identification cards in a format that’s friendly to your iPhone’s Wallet app. There’s more to this than simply taking a picture of your driver’s license — like Apple Pay, there need to be apps or back-end systems that can not only verify that the ID is valid, but that it matches the person adding it.
So far, Apple has only eight states who have committed to the project, with Arizona and Georgia expected to be the first ones to roll it out. Connecticut, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Oklahoma, and Utah are expected to follow.
Florida’s Smart ID
The Sunshine State is taking a slightly different path by rolling out its own Smart ID app first, which it hopes to add to Apple Wallet later.
Florida officials are actually a bit mystified as to why their state hasn’t been invited to Apple’s Digital ID party. Senate Transportation Committee Chair Gayle Harrell expressed concern to Florida Politics that the state was left off the initial list of Apple partners, and Terrence Samuel, modernization director for Florida Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles (FLHSMV) also expressed surprise by the exclusion.
There’s nothing that we see that would prevent us from being on the list.Terrence Samuel, Florida Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles
However, despite the work on their app, FLHSMV officials appear to be keen on getting their Digital IDs directly into the iPhone Wallet app. Samuel notes that “the department has now exchanged information with Apple in the hopes of getting added to the list of partners.”
Notably, Florida’s own Smart ID app may be ahead of the curve, since the FLHSMV notes that it plans to have it ready for law enforcement to use even at roadside stops, and for age checks and department customer notifications. Officials are also already looking at expanding that to include things like car rentals, voter identification, airport security, and ride-sharing.
One notable difference, however, is that Florida’s Smart ID app relies on a scannable QR code, rather than NFC, and works through an intermediate server. The QR code simply links the user and the person requesting the ID, such as a law enforcement officer, however the actual identification data is sent to the requester directly from a government server.
A user’s phone scans a QR code from someone, like a law enforcement officer, requesting verification. The user’s device sends the request for data to a server, which then bounces the identification data back to the user and the person requesting the data.Florida Politics
The upside, however, is that no special hardware is required to scan a Smart ID. Instead, a companion Florida Smart ID Verifier app will be available that can be installed on any iOS or Android device, opening the system up to everybody from police officers to store clerks.
The reliance on a server to store and present the digital ID has made some lawmakers a bit nervous. Concerns have been expressed about everything from user privacy to the reliability of the system, which could be brought down by a network outage or server crash, leaving users stranded.
For now, the FLHSMV’s answer to this is that since state law requires users to carry their physical ID cards on them anyway, they’ll always have a fallback if the Smart ID app fails to work properly.
Almost none of these concerns apply to Apple’s Digital ID solution, however, which relies on a server connection only to authenticate the original ID when it’s first added to the Wallet app. Once stored safely in the iPhone’s Secure Enclave, the ID can be transmitted to the requestor via NFC, without the need for an online connection. Only the user’s iPhone and the requestor’s terminal are involved in the transaction.
The Digital ID feature in iOS 15 also puts the user in more direct control over what information gets transmitted. While FLHSMV officials note that their system has some privacy protections in place — a store requesting proof of age, for instance, gets less information than a law enforcement officer would — the user can choose from only three pre-defined categories for what to share: age, proof of identity, or law enforcement.
By contrast, when a user presents a Digital ID from Apple Wallet to an authorized terminal, such as one at a TSA checkpoint, they’ll be shown a list of the specific information that’s being requested, and asked to authorize whether that should be sent out or not by authenticating with Face ID or Touch ID.
This not only ensures that the user knows what they’re being asked to provide, but it also guarantees that the person presenting the ID is the actual owner of the iPhone. For example, unlike making a payment with Apple Pay, it will not be possible to use alternate fingerprints or a passcode to present a Digital ID. Only the fingerprint or face that was used to add the ID to the iPhone will be able to retrieve it.
Florida’s Smart ID app is expected to be available on the App Store sometime next month, although it’s not going to offer a direct path into Apple’s Digital ID system — at least not right away. State officials still have to work out the details with Apple, and the differences between Florida’s own Smart ID app and how Apple expects states to use iOS 15 Digital IDs may require a bit of rethinking by FLHSMV officials.