Why Digital IDs Won’t Replace Physical Identity Cards

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated digital transformation across the globe. Governments are currently scrambling to offer services and benefits to citizens online and remotely, removing the need for in-person ID checks to minimize the spread of the virus.

As civilization moves toward more digital interactions and the verification associated with them, coordinating physical and virtual world credentials becomes increasingly important. Both physical and digital credentials must verify that you are who you say you are. They also have to be validly issued from an authenticated authority.

Physical ID documents and cards still play a major role in identity authentication—and in many ways will be closely tied to virtual credentials as the rollout of digital IDs continues throughout the world. Rather than simply being replaced by new digital formats, they continue to be the pre-requisite for the overall success of many schemes, according to a recent report from the Secure Identity Alliance.

Around the globe, governments and national ID issuers continue to use physical ID documents and cards for a variety of applications and services. Here’s why:

Smartphones Are Not Ubiquitous

Portable and easy to present and validate by authorities without having to rely on mobile network connectivity or coverage, physical ID documents and cards continue to offer the ideal solution for citizens who can’t or won’t carry a smartphone or who live in locations where mobile coverage is limited.

“There will always be a need for a physical identification method and physical credentials must be considered a part of the citizen identity ecosystem,” said Martin Hoff, product marketing manager, Instant ID Issuance at Entrust. “While mobile devices can be used to effectively store and present digital credentials, not everyone has a smartphone. Physical smartcards should work hand-in-hand with digital credentials to ensure a wide range of use cases and smooth interactions for citizens around the globe.”

Trusted Digital IDs Rely on Physical IDs

Digital identity is one of the most significant technology trends on the planet and, for a growing number of public stakeholders and citizens, it’s already a day-to-day reality. With specific credentials (i.e. a unique ID number in India, a mobile ID in Finland or Estonia or an eID card in Germany, Italy, Spain or Portugal), it can be used to authenticate its owner.

“The value in digital IDs is the ability to provide more citizens greater access to public services like health care, education and government benefit programs in a convenient, seamless and secure way,” Hoff said.

A trusted digital ID is created by conducting three general steps: capture, verify and digitalize. The subscriber’s ID information is captured from a physical identity document like a passport or card, such as a driver’s license or national ID. After it has been captured, the system verifies the authenticity of the ID document or card with dedicated software. A digital ID may be created after a match is established between the biometric data and the identity document or card.

Multi-Layered Security Provides More Security

The combination of a physical card with a digital identity is powerful and provides multi-layered security. The two form factors together present a highly secure, highly personalized ID that cannot be easily counterfeited, providing significant cost savings to the governments that deploy them.

An example of physical and mobile ID co-existence is the Irish Passport Card, a highly controlled, highly secure document that allows travel across borders in the European Union. Irish citizens can apply and pay for their passport card using their mobile phone. Speeding up the enrollment process dramatically reduces the issuing agency’s overhead and administrative costs while improving citizen convenience without compromising their privacy. In the end, a physical card is still issued, although the security protocols including authentication of a citizen’s credentials was done online in advance, ensuring that the card issued is a “genuine” ID.

When it comes to highly secure government applications, physical cards and mobile IDs can work together as part of a total multi-factor authentication of what a person knows, such as a password or phrase, what a person has (i.e. a physical card) and something they are (e.g. a registered fingerprint that can be read by a biometric scanner). As demand for multi-factor authentication continues to rise in the interest of increased security, so too will a hybrid approach to credential deployment.

This year promises to be another big one for digital IDs—and secure physical credentials and cards will certainly play a role in that. Look no further than Estonia, which has by far the most highly developed national ID-card system in the world and still deems the physical credential necessary. Much more than a legal photo ID, the mandatory national card also provides digital access to all of Estonia’s secure e-services. The chip on the card carries embedded files and, using 384-bit ECC public key encryption, it can be used as definitive proof of ID in an electronic environment.

Want More Industry Insider Insights or a Glimpse into Global Card Trends?

For more than three decades, ICMA has represented the interests of the card manufacturing industry—which includes manufacturers, personalizers, issuers and suppliers—as its leading global association.

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ICMA maintains several industry-leading training and education programs about card manufacturing. These include the Advanced Card Education (ACE) program, which provides information on key areas of the industry, as well as online tutorials and webinars on specific topics from card industry experts and leading industry suppliers.

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ICMA officially participates in two major standards organizations, the International Standards Organization (ISO) and the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). An ICMA representative attends ANSI and ISO meetings, offering card manufacturing and personalization perspectives to the standard-making bodies and providing guidance to members about forthcoming changes to standards. ICMA maintains representation on both of these committees through its official standards representative, David Tushie of Magellan Consulting. Tushie is at the forefront of current and emerging standards for all types of cards and related devices.

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ICMA publishes two annual reports that analyze the industry and assess the industry’s present environment and future. Designed to assist ICMA member companies with strategic planning, the reports are segmented by global views, industry verticals and geographic regions and they cover trends in manufacturing, personalization, and fulfillment statistics. The reports are free to members and are available in the member-only portal at icma.com.

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