How to Travel With Digital Identification

Christine Rolin passes her iphone over a scanner as she uses the new mobile app for expedited passport and customer screening being unveiled for international travelers arriving at Miami International Airport on March 4, 2015 in Miami, Florida.
Christine Rolin passes her iphone over a scanner as she uses the new mobile app for expedited passport and customer screening being unveiled for international travelers arriving at Miami International Airport on March 4, 2015 in Miami, Florida. Joe Raedle / Getty Images

Airports in Miami and Atlanta are testing a new digital-passport program that's expected to help speed customs lines. If successful, will the traditional paper passport and other forms of ID be retired in favor of their electronic cousins? 

The digital passport app was introduced late last year. The U.S. Customs and Border Patrol are in the midst of a pilot program, testing the app at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport and, as of last week, Miami International Airport. So far, an average of 120 people are using the app daily at each of the two airports, says U.S. Customs Spokesperson Migdalia Artegea, a far cry from the up to 40,000 flyers going through customs each day in Miami. Customs officials expect 1,000 or more flyers to download and use the app in the near future as more people learn about the program.

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"We wanted the program to start slow, because there's a learning curve, not only with the public, but with officers," says Artegea. While there's hope to eventually expand the program to every international airport in the country, there's currently no firm timetable to expand the program beyond Atlanta and Miami. Here's everything you need to know about traveling with digital identification, and what to expect in the near future.

It Saves You Time
The digital passport is an app travelers can download from either the Apple or Android stores. They then input their passport information and download a photo from their camera phone. When returning to the U.S. from abroad, travelers will fill out the new trip form on the app and submit a customs declaration form. The app will receive an electronic receipt with an Encrypted Quick Response (QR) code, which can then be scanned by a customs officer at the end of a special, faster mobile-passport line. Wait times at many airports can be well over an hour, but Artegea says the average time for a digital-passport user is about 15 minutes.

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Your Driver's License Could Go Digital Too
Some states are looking to introduce digital driver's licenses. Delaware and Iowa are investigating the feasibility of replacing the plastic versions in our wallets. But experts believe in order for e-licenses to be useful, a federal standard would need to be established to eliminate lingering questions: Could drivers with a dead cell phone be cited for not having a license? Or what if a driver from an e-license state is pulled over in a state that doesn't recognize the digital ID?

Europe Leads the Push for Digital IDs
The U.S. isn't the only country developing digital identification. Variations on digital IDs are rapidly becoming the norm in Europe, with Germany, Italy, and several other countries establishing e-ID standards (although none smartphone-enabled). It's tiny Estonia that has set itself up as the digital leader, with 1.1 million of its 1.3 million citizens having an e-ID that not only proves their identity, but also allows them to vote online, access government databases, and even fill prescriptions. Estonians' data is protected by a standard, secure 2048-bit public key encryption, which, to the government's knowledge, has never been hacked. The only downside is that users must remember a different PIN for each service.

They're Only as Secure as Their Networks
How secure are digital IDs? The transmitted data for the new passport app is encrypted, but specific details are hard to come by. Some due caution may be called for, according to Fred Cate, Indiana University professor and digital security expert. "Any time you take information from an analog format to a digital one and share that info with someone else, you're dramatically increasing your risk."

"People who until now have been bothering banks, credit card companies, and retailers," he says, "may now go after this new app."

Despite security measures in place, data can sometimes be intercepted in the nanosecond before it's encrypted, much like the cyberattack that hit 216 Jimmy John's restaurants last year. Cate also warned that some people's phones might be infected by malware or bad code they inadvertently downloaded that would capture their passport data. 

But the biggest worry with the digital passport program will be overall system vulnerability. Before the app goes into wide use nationwide, most airports and wireless service providers like AT&T and Verizon will have to seriously up their game, both Cate and Artegea say.

A Complete Digital Conversion Could Take Decades
So, will the digital ID eventually take the place of the current analog versions? Not in the near future. "I suspect it'll be decades before the government gets rid of the paper passport," says Cate. "The digital passport can certainly supplement it however. It seems like a great opportunity to combine the use of data with passport control to determine who we should focus on and who we shouldn't worry about." The biggest obstacle for making digital passports and other IDs standard is older adults and infrequent travelers who may be a bit overwhelmed by the technology, he adds.

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