The Wall Street Journal

Test Driving the First Digital Driver's Licenses

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A handful of states are starting to pilot smartphone-based digital driver's licenses. WSJ's Joanna Stern headed to Dover, Delaware—and its many liquor stores—to test one of these mobile IDs, and get answers about the privacy and security of the new technology.

Photo: Kenny Wassus for The Wall Street Journal

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… show captions ↓
- [Joanna] Why would a 61-year old IT consultant
from Delaware have six cases of Natty Light
on a Thursday evening?
(playful orchestral music)
Hint, me!
See, Mike is part of Delaware's Mobile Driver's License
Pilot Program, that is, his license lives on his phone,
and so, I asked him to get ID'd.
- See it here?
- [Joanna] A lot.
- See that?
- Oh, wow!
- [Joanna] Turns out his mobile driver's license works.
It really works, at least in Dover,
Delaware's lovely, if tiny, capital.
- Thank you very much! - All right.
(text buzzing)
- Let's back up for second to understand
why I found myself in so many Dover liquor stores.
In the quest to replace physical cards
with digital ones, IDs have been some of the toughest.
Credit cards, we're well on our way.
Transit cards, New York City's MTA just started
the transition, and it's awesome.
Loyalty cards, just a tap away,
but mobile driver's licenses or MDLs,
a license that lives on your Android phone or iPhone,
has been as hard as, well,
this hard iced tea. (pleasant orchestral music)
Sorry, that's a really bad joke.
Delaware, coincidentally, named The First State,
has been one of the first states to try it out,
so I met up with the state's secretary of transportation
to ask her about it.
- In Delaware, we're running pilot program right now.
We have about 200 participants.
We're excited about doing the testing
and we have lots of different companies
that we've been testing with, all walks of life.
We've been very successful with the testing so far,
so we're looking to roll it out to the general public
hopefully by the end of this calendar year.
- I just have a lot of questions
about how that's gonna work logistically
and with our privacy and safety in mind.
(peppy orchestral music)
Delaware and a handful of other states,
including Iowa, Alabama, and Arizona,
have partnered with identification company Idemia
to provide all the technology.
The company already partners with over 35 states
around the country to provide physical licenses.
Because Mike couldn't re-setup his license,
Idemia's Cameron Champeau walked me through
the starting process.
- (sighs) Okay.
- [Joanna] You download the app, confirm your phone number
with the DMV, scan your physical license,
and begin to take your new license photo.
You scan your face so your license can now have
a moving photo, what the company calls
a Harry Potter effect.
The mobile license looks almost identical
to the plastic one, but it does have some digital powers.
Say Mike is asked to show his ID
to verify his age, but doesn't want to show
all of his personal info, like address.
He can tap here to hide that.
The app also requires a second form of authetication
to get in, like a password or a re-scan of your face.
If a store wants more verification
than just looking at the digital license,
Mike can tap on the license to reveal the digital barcode,
the same kind that's on a physical license.
That's where the infrastructure comes in.
In Dover, many local stores have been taught
how to read the new license.
(muffled chatter)
- Oh, nice!
- It seems pretty simple from a technological perspective,
but there are lots of very big questions
when you think about the implications of a card
with a lot of your personal information going digital.
First big question, what about fakes?
What stops someone from taking a screenshot
and just showing that?
- So actually, the mobile DL is more difficult to fake.
It's much more secure than a regular plastic card.
- [Joanna] Cohan highlighted the moving photo
and the interactive emblem.
People inspecting the license should drag their finger
to see a ripple effect on the screen to confirm
it's not just a screen recording,
but a few store clerks and bartenders
we encountered in Dover
were unaware of the finger-dragging verification tech.
Number two, what about privacy and security?
This ID lives on your phone,
a device that's basically become a surveillance tool
with GPS, mics, and more.
- Not only are we not tracking you, we don't want to.
We don't care where you are.
We just wanna make sure that you have what you need
to prove your identity when you need to.
- [Joanna] And what about hackers?
Can my license be hacked?
- And then we use a multitude of different technologies
online in order to ensure security for the end user.
- [Joanna] Number three,
what happens if you get pulled over?
Do you have to hand your phone over to law enforcement?
Mike hasn't been pulled over yet,
but Delaware's just starting to work with law enforcement.
Future versions will allow police officers
who have just pulled you over
to request a driver's license wirelessly
without getting out of the car.
Number four, what about physical licenses?
You need a physical driver's license
to sign up for the digital kind,
and you'll need one for all the places
where the digital license isn't yet accepted.
Miss Cohan has tried it everywhere she goes.
- There's two places it has not worked.
One is the TSA, they're firm and very strict
that it has to be, you know, that plastic, that card.
I did try, and I had to go through
another level of screening, but I did try.
And then the only other place was the White House security.
- What happens when your license dies
or your battery dies?
- So if your battery in your phone dies
and you don't have access to your digital identification,
and if you don't have a backup,
there isn't much we can do to help you.
- So you're screwed.
- You're out of luck, yes.
- Screwed.
- Yes, you're screwed (chuckles).
(pleasant big band music)
- So what did I learn here in Dover?
Well, firstly, there are a lot of liquor stores,
but also, it's not a question of if,
it's a question of when we're gonna get
mobile driver's licenses.
The state might promise that a mobile driver's license
is safer and more secure,
but just like a physical license,
it's really only as good as those who are checking 'em.
Does it look like me?
What if I go like this?
(playful orchestral music)
(glasses clinking)
- To cheap beers. - Cheers.
- [Mike] To cheap beers.
- Cheap beers and digital licenses.
- [Mike] And digital licenses.

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