How New York's new digital driver licenses work: TSA, privacy features, and more

Nestled on your smartphone, the New York Mobile ID will serve as proof of identity at participating airport TSA checkpoints and supporting businesses. Here's how to sign up and what to expect.
Written by Lance Whitney, Contributor
New York Mobile ID
Screenshot by Lance Whitney/ZDNET

New Yorkers who'd like the convenience of a mobile version of their driver's license can now sign up for one. On Tuesday, New York State officially launched its New York Mobile ID program, which lets you digitize a driver's license, learner's permit, or other state-issued ID for storage on your smartphone. The New York Mobile ID app is available for iPhones and Android phones.

Strictly voluntary, the new mobile ID will be accepted by TSA security checkpoints across almost 30 airports around the country, including all terminals at New York's LaGuardia and JFK airports. The goal is to help you prove your identity more quickly and easily by scanning your smartphone at the TSA identity readers.

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All of the information on a physical ID will be accessible on the mobile version. This means the license type (REAL ID, Enhanced ID, or Standard ID), the class (D, E, Commercial A, B, or C), organ donor status, veteran status, and more will be available depending on which details you opt to share.

The move toward mobile IDs picked up steam in 2021 with Apple pushing its Apple Wallet app as a repository for state IDs and driver's licenses. At that point, the initiative included eight states -- Arizona, Connecticut, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Oklahoma, and Utah. Since then, several other states have kicked off or at least announced support for the program. Android users in participating states can also add a mobile version of their license to the Google Wallet app.

One downside for now is that the New York State Mobile ID is accepted only at certain TSA checkpoints and businesses that support them. But the New York Department of Motor Vehicles is working with different organizations and government partners to explain how the program works and how they can participate. Any public or private entity that needs to verify someone's identity or age can register to accept the mobile IDs. However, it's likely to take time before more organizations jump on the bandwagon.

Another concern is privacy. How secure are the mobile IDs?

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The part of the New York Mobile ID that you share doesn't look like a picture of your driver's license. Rather, it appears as a QR code designed to be scanned. Unlike with a physical ID, a person who looks at the mobile ID can't see any of the details on your license.

Further, the data in the Mobile ID is encrypted and accessible only when you agree to share it. The scanning occurs over a secure digital connection, so there's no need to hand your phone to the other person. You can also limit which data you want to share. For example, someone buying alcohol at a participating store can share their age via the ID without sharing any other information, such as their name or address.

Additionally, using the Mobile ID app requires that you unlock it through facial or fingerprint recognition or a six-digit PIN. Any data on when and where you share your personal information is encrypted and stored only on your device.

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Plus, the DMV can push updates to the app whenever any information is changed, such as your address or driving status. This saves you from having to deal with the DMV directly.

"This is the way to go," Krishna Vishnubhotla, VP of Product Strategy at mobile security provider Zimperium, told ZDNET. "However, city and state governments funding these initiatives need to ensure that the apps presenting the IDs can't be tampered with and that the ID itself can be verified offline. They will want to monitor these apps across millions as well to ensure they are not being actively abused and exploited by bad actors. These apps will need to have enough security to protect themselves as they run on citizen devices that are susceptive to phishing, malware, and other vectors of compromise."

How to enroll in the New York Mobile ID program

  1. First, download the New York Mobile ID app from the App Store or Google Play.
  2. Open the app and select the type of ID you want to use. Next, register the phone number of your device. You can use the Mobile ID on only one phone at a time. Enter the verification code to proceed.
  3. Take pictures of the front and back of your physical ID using your phone's camera.
  4. Take a selfie. The app then checks your photo and ID against the information on file with the DMV to verify your identity.
  5. After your information is confirmed, you're prompted to secure it with a six-digit PIN, though you can authenticate it with a facial or fingerprint scan. The Mobile ID is now ready for you to use.

Here's how you'd use it at an airport TSA checkpoint.

Scan your phone at the TSA's identity reader. You can tell if the mobile ID is supported as signs will indicate if digital documents like the New York Mobile ID are accepted. Your smartphone shows you which details the TSA is requesting. After you approve the request, the information is transmitted. The TSA officer verifies your identity and flight status, and you can now get on your way.

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