Your iPhone is already practically indispensable, storing messages, photos, contacts, banking apps, payment cards, boarding passes, and so much more. In Apple’s iOS 13, the stage is being set for it to one day also become the main form of personal identification you carry, due to the company opening up its NFC feature beyond Apple Pay. By doing this, official identification — from passports to driving licences — could eventually be stored in your phone, creating a digital representation of the hard copy in your hand.
How it works
Apple introduced the Core NFC framework with iOS 11 and the iPhone 7 series, and will make significant changes to it for iOS 13, which arrives this fall. Currently your iPhone reads basic NFC Data Exchange Format (NDEF) tags. This is used to understand tags that contain simple information, like URLs, and to enable Apple Pay. Developers are locked out from making further use of NFC.
In iOS 13, Apple will update and open Core NFC to read more complex NFC tags, including those that meet ISO 7816 and ISO 15693 standards. This will potentially enable it to read the data stored on tags associated with passports, driving licences, and other forms of official identification. You will need an iPhone 7 or later to make use of new features created around the changes, as iPhone models before this do not contain the requisite hardware.
Apple will still have considerable control over NFC on iOS, but it’s giving developers the chance to create more varied apps around the feature. Keeping everything safe is Apple’s Secure Enclave, and the superb biometric identification that uses either your fingerprint or your face to confirm identity.
What will I be able to use it for?
Apple has wanted the iPhone to replace everything in your wallet for years. In 2015, Apple’s Eddy Cue said in an interview that its long-term goal was for the device to replace your physical passport and driving licence. Add this to Apple Pay and Apple Wallet’s ability to do everything from pay for goods to store tickets and boarding passes, and it’s easy to see why you’d only need your iPhone when you leave the house.
Now, four years after that interview, the technology is catching up. However, don’t get too carried away just yet, there is still work for Apple to do. For a start, because iOS 13 is still in beta at the time of writing, there are no official apps available at the moment, but announcements are being made that give us an idea of what’s to come.
Japan was one of the first to announce it will make use of the iOS 13’s NFC feature. The country’s “My Number” card introduced in 2015 is used to simplify tax and social security for residents, while helping to prevent fraud. The details are stored inside a chip on a physical card, which the Japanese government said will be able to be read by iOS 13 on an iPhone by using a special app.
Germany is also doing something similar with its national ID card, residence permits, and most interestingly, biometric passports. The German government said it will update the AusweisApp2 app to support the new NFC feature, and eventually integrate these IDs into the phone. The U.K. has also announced it will add iOS 13’s NFC ability to the app used for the EU Settlement Scheme, which European Union citizens may need to use to stay in the U.K. after Brexit.
The more devices able to hold official digital documents, the greater the development will be around the technology.
ReadID, the company behind the verification technology in the EU Exit app, said Apple’s entrance into the wider world of NFC would have a “major impact” on signing up for online services, and that it will “accelerate digitalization while reducing fraud.”
The U.K. has been experimenting with adding other official identification to Apple Wallet for a while. In 2016, former CEO of the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) tweeted a photo of an iPhone with a U.K. driving licence inside the Apple Wallet app, indicating it wants you to be able to add government-issued identification to the platform. iOS 13 will make this possible.
Don’t throw any documents away just yet
These are exciting developments, and adding a passport and driving licence to the iPhone has taken another step closer to reality. Are we still far away from it actually happening? Apple’s move is important because the more devices able to hold official digital documents, the greater the development will be around the technology.
Android phone owners will be aware their phones have been able to do many of these things for a while, as NFC is already an open feature on smartphones using Google’s software. For example, ReadID’s EU Exit app mentioned above is already available for Android phones. The iPhone has considerable market share in many countries, and Apple’s involvement is crucial to encouraging government involvement.
Developing the apps is just the start. These are official, government-issued documents, and with that comes bureaucracy, privacy concerns, security considerations, and more bureaucracy. For good reason too as the apps and digital documents must be safe, secure, and highly resistant to fraud or theft before we will be confident enough to use them.
Solving these issues will be followed by governments all over the world needing to put guidelines, methods, and potentially new technology in place to officially accept digital versions at airports, police stations, hospitals, and other places. It’s not going to be a speedy process.
Additionally, while the idea of using digital versions of these documents to make our real lives easier is exciting, they may initially be used to only make our digital lives easier. Proving identity online at the moment often means using a credit card, or by sending scanned versions of ID forms or documents. A digital driving licence or passport would make signing up for services like a bank account far faster and more secure; as well as being quicker to implement than in offline scenarios.
Dark mode, the photos app, and Sign in With Apple may have captured iOS 13 headlines at first, but the changes to NFC will end up having considerably more long-lasting implications, as it will drastically alter the way we identify ourselves online, and even in person.