Will your iPhone replace your passport or ID card?

Digital freedom
2 mins
A phone with a fingerprint.

Depending on where you live, you might soon be able to store your driver’s license or state ID on your iPhone—and carrying your device will be just as good as having a physical card on you. And all signs indicate that Apple is targeting digital passports next. 

In 2015, Apple first signaled that its goal of replacing your physical driver’s license and passport. He pointed to the increasing use of biometric technology, like fingerprint scans, as a key authentication protocol for security and fraud detection, and said that Apple was working on incorporating these into its hardware suite.

Now, it appears that Apple is forging ahead with these plans.

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Secure Enclave: iPhone’s sensitive information hub

A patent filed by Apple in April this year, as well as another one filed in July 2020, gives us an insight into the company’s roadmap.

Both the first one, titled “Providing Verified Claims of User Identity,” and the second one, “User Authentication Framework,” point to methods of storing, validating, and verifying digital identifications through mobile devices. 

This is made possible by a feature of Apple devices called the Secure Enclave. The Secure Enclave is a separate subsystem found on iOS devices, isolated from the main processor in order to store sensitive user data. The isolation means data is kept encrypted and protected even if the main kernel is compromised. 

On iOS devices, the Secure Enclave is where biometric and facial recognition information is stored. Apple Pay also uses it to store your credit card information. In Apple’s patent application, the firm details how governments and security agencies can verify identities from data stored in the Secure Enclave and how it is kept safe from unauthorized access. 

In theory, the Secure Enclave can also be used for transaction verification purposes. For example, if a merchant needs to verify a person’s age or identity, all they need to do is ask the user to present their iPhone to the reader. 

The company has already announced that iOS 15, which will be released in autumn of this year, will allow its Wallet app to store driver’s licenses and U.S. state IDs.

Read more: Explainer: iPhone’s new App Tracking Transparency feature

Are digital passports secure?

Apple argues that digital passports would be more secure than physical passports. 

While current passports have chips in them, checkpoints still largely rely on immigration officers to compare the information in a passport against electronically stored details and confirm the identity of the passport holder. A digital passport would interact directly with the system after the user has unlocked their iPhone with biometrics.

The application of the patents is only the first stage in what could be a long journey for eventual user rollout. Storing information like credit cards and loyalty programs is one thing, but convincing governments and navigating bureaucracy for digital user verification is a wholly different ballgame. A passport, especially, is tricky since it requires both the origin and destination countries to sign up. 

Nonetheless, Apple has already found some success in getting governments to trial its tech. In 2019, the UK government announced that it had reached a deal with Apple to use the iPhone’s NFC technology for post-Brexit border control. The deal meant that people applying for residency could fill out a short application, take a selfie, and scan their passport using their iPhone. 

Will you store your ID on your iPhone? Let us know in the comments!

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I like to think about the impact that the internet has on humanity. In my free time, I'm wolfing down pasta.