Sept. 13, 2023, 4:51 AM EDT

Digital ID Cards Spread Across US States With Range of New Uses

Andrea Vittorio

Andrea Vittorio, Bloomberg Reporter

A growing number of US states are letting residents prove their identity digitally, offering a more modern method than physical credentials for purchasing age-restricted products, seeking government benefits, or even checking in at the polls.

The technology’s continued rollout is poised to test business’ enthusiasm and the public’s willingness to embrace digital verification in a wider range of interactions. Many states are allowing the use of mobile driver’s licenses and identification cards as an alternative to their traditional counterparts, though ID holders are still told to carry their physical credentials.

One of the most widely accepted current uses is at airports, allowing travelers to pass through security checkpoints using mobile driver’s licenses stored on their phones. The federal Transportation Security Administration now accepts mobile IDs from California, Iowa, and four other states at more than two dozen airports across the country.

States are becoming laboratories for testing out other applications for digital identity checks.

California’s new mobile driver’s license includes an age-verification capability that gives enrolled users the option to show a scannable QR code at checkout in certain retail locations. When a voter walks into a polling place in Mississippi, they can present a digital version of the state driver’s license to a poll manager, according to a spokesperson for Mississippi Secretary of State’s office. Louisiana residents, meanwhile, can apply for emergency financial aid from the government using digital identity verification.

States have championed mobile driver’s licenses as being more fraud-resistant and privacy-protective than traditional credentials, with the added convenience of not having to hand over a card or even a phone for verification. But privacy advocates have cautioned about the potential to leave a digital trail revealing where and when a digital ID has been presented.

Practical uses for these credentials so far concentrate largely on in-person identity checks. Digital identity advocates have urged states issuing mobile credentials to prioritize online uses, given how much identity theft relies on compromised verification processes online.

“Instead, everything is kind of backwards,” said Jeremy Grant, managing director of technology business strategy at Venable LLP. “We’ve got the wrong use case up front.”

Grant also coordinates the Better Identity Coalition, which advocates for policy solutions that improve the way Americans establish, protect, and verify their identities online. Its members include identity verification providers like Idemia and as well as financial institutions such as JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Mastercard Inc.

Broadening Acceptance

Among the significant challenges states will face in expanding the reach of digital identity technology is making sure it doesn’t become a barrier for individuals who lack access to a smartphone or who have trouble navigating online ID checks.

Broadening use of digital IDs may require “legislative changes” in some states, said Lisa Shoemaker, vice president of corporate relations for Idemia’s identity and security business in North America.

The company, headquartered in France, underpins the infrastructure for issuing the majority of driver’s licenses or other identification cards in the US. It’s worked with a number of states to develop their mobile IDs as a standalone app or as a virtual credential stored in Apple Inc.’s digital wallet. Alphabet Inc.’s Google recently added a similar function for storing a digital ID in its wallet app.

“Most states clarify today for various ID checks that a physical credential has to be presented,” Shoemaker said.

Since late 2020, Louisiana’s mobile ID app has been considered legally equivalent to a physical license or state identification card, allowing its acceptance in place of a physical card by state police or for age-verification purposes.

The state’s LA Wallet app also can hold hunting and fishing licenses and vaccination records. When there’s a state-declared disaster such as a hurricane, low-income residents in Louisiana can use the app as proof of identity to apply for financial assistance to feed their families.

For businesses looking to accept digital credentials, authenticating them may require integrating different ID-reading technology into point-of-sale systems, apps, or online stores.

Iowa’s Department of Transportation has reached out to businesses to help explain how to accept the state’s mobile ID, which came out over the summer. More than 5,500 Iowans have downloaded a mobile version of their IDs so far.

“Though we are not creating mobile ID reader infrastructure or verification tools, we are helping verifiers understand the options they have available to them to begin accepting mobile IDs,” Toni Smith, program manager for Iowa Mobile ID, said in an email.

“Once a business decides to accept Iowa Mobile ID, it is up to them to determine the verification method that best fits their needs and then implement it into their business processes,” Smith said.

Age Verification

Some states are turning to digital IDs for age-verification purposes, to vet residents’ access to restricted products or services.

To comply with a new age-verification law in Louisiana restricting minors’ access to adult internet content, visitors of the pornography website Pornhub can use their mobile ID online to prove their eligibility.

California’s newly launched mobile ID will let users buy beer or other age-restricted products through a partnership with a service called TruAge. First they’ll need to download the state’s DMV wallet app and set up their mobile license by taking a photo of the front and back of their physical credential, and then scanning their face to prove their identity matches.

The app’s TruAge feature works by pulling a user’s birthdate and a few other data points from their license. To keep the information secure, TruAge encrypts it as anonymous digital tokens. That way, a person can confirm they’re old enough to make a purchase without revealing their personal information.

“We don’t know who you are,” said TruAge’s chief executive officer Kyle McKeen, a convenience industry veteran who’s also a rancher in Texas. “We just know you’re of age.”

TruAge is currently available at a handful of convenience stores and markets in California and Texas. The system, meant to make carding easier and help flag fake IDs, is free for consumers and retailers to use. It’s sponsored by convenience store chains such as Wawa and Sheetz, as well as by manufacturers and distributors of age-restricted products like cigarette makers Altria Group Inc. and Juul Labs Inc.

In-Person Options

Digital identity verification is unlikely to fully replace other methods of confirming a person is who they claim to be, though. Oklahoma added a new in-person identity verification option after launching a digital platform for those seeking state unemployment benefits.

Oklahomans who have lost their job and want to apply for government assistance can confirm their identity online through a system called VerifyOK that pairs live face captures with a state-issued photo ID. The system, which doesn’t currently accommodate the state’s mobile ID, was set up during the coronavirus pandemic in response to an influx in fraudulent unemployment claims.

As an alternative to online identity checks, individuals can visit an Oklahoma Employment Security Commission office or—particularly for those living in rural areas—stop by a local post office. The federally funded program is part of an effort to boost equitable access to unemployment benefits nationwide.

“It’s increasing access by having more places they can visit,” said Trae Rahill, the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission’s chief executive officer.

Public benefit programs face conflicting priorities between fighting fraud and ensuring equitable access, according to Elizabeth Bynum Sorrell and Ariel Kennan from Georgetown University’s Beeck Center for Social Impact & Innovation. Sorrell and Kennan study digital authentication requirements among agencies that administer public benefits applications. They advocate for creating multiple pathways in so that applicants have options if needed.

“No technology will work for every user,” Sorrell said.

Post offices across the US are poised to play a larger role in confirming a person’s identity when applying for government benefits. Arkansas was the first state to implement what’s known as in-person proofing for unemployment insurance claims at post offices.

Hawaii is now working with the US Labor Department and the Postal Service to expand online and in-person avenues to apply for unemployment benefits in the wake of recent devastating wildfires. The state’s goal is to help those in need receive benefits quickly, regardless of their location or ability to access technology.

“Requiring a digital option that might not work for everyone is a potential barrier to access,” Sorrell said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Andrea Vittorio in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Tonia Moore at; Adam M. Taylor at