Apple announced this week at its Worldwide Developer Conference a new feature in its forthcoming operating system, iOS 15, that will digitize state-issued licenses and ID cards.
Buying a coffee and grabbing a train is already possible with an iPhone, but Apple wants to replace the physical wallet completely.
To that end, earlier this week Apple announced a new feature to let users scan their driver's licenses and save it to their iPhones to use as a legitimate form of identification.
The company is working with an undisclosed number of states and the Transportation Security Administration on the plan, which is aimed at speeding up tedious tasks like getting through airport security. It is expected to launch this fall when Apple rolls out its latest iPhone operating system, iOS 15.
Apple touts the feature as an added convenience, though to privacy experts and advocates, it is raising alarm.
"This just strikes me as the latest example of where they're trying to weave themselves into more and more aspects of our lives," said Evan Greer, director of the group Fight for the Future, a progressive organization critical of Big Tech. "And when Apple becomes kind of indispensable, it truly is too big to fail."
While iPhone users can already store digital copies of their credit cards and make purchases using Apple's Wallet app, some see the digital ID as a bridge too far, inviting greater surveillance and data tracking.`
Elizabeth Renieris, a fellow at Stanford University who studies digital identification systems, said the feature may be easy-to-use and save time. Those conveniences, however, come at a cost: Turning every instance in which we show our ID into a business opportunity.
"The sleeker these credentials are, the more they're embedded into things we're always attached to like a mobile device, which we take everywhere, the more there's an incentive to introduce identity requirements in contexts where it never existed before," Renieris said. "We're running a risk where we'll be in a situation where we always have to identify ourselves, and that creates some perverse incentives."
Renieris said a for-profit company like Apple will treat IDs as a way to make money, perhaps one day tacking on transaction fees, as Apple does with purchases made through Apple Wallet.
Apple has not yet publicly revealed its planned business model for Apple ID.
Michael Veale, a professor at University College London who specializes in technology policy, said the feature will make iPhone users even more reliant on Apple to carry out daily life.
"We're really opening Pandora's Box in allowing people to prove things about themselves from the intimate innards of their phone," Veale said. "But this is what Apple wants: to shape how people communicate, collaborate, discuss, buy and sell, and now people's very identities. Apple wants that all within their purview."
A spokeswoman for Apple did not respond to questions about whether the digital ID feature could be used for tracking or as way to make money for the company. Instead, she pointed to an announcement stating that the identity cards will be encrypted and "safely stored" on iPhones.
"What happens when Apple messes up?"
About a dozen states and the federal government already are exploring ways to digitize official forms of ID, though experts say Apple's involvement presents a new layer of concerns.
To Aram Sinnreich, a professor at American University in Washington who studies technology, it is yet another reason why Congress should pass a law restricting how companies can use online data.
While some states, including California and Virginia, have passed data privacy laws, the U.S. does not have a national law safeguarding Americans' online information.
"If there's no regulation holding Apple accountable, then there's nothing stopping them from surveilling us," Sinnreich said.
Proponents of digital IDs counter that technology like cryptography allows authorities to verify a digital identity on a mobile phone while preserving the person's identity. Yet some civil rights groups remain vigilant.
The American Civil Liberties Union recently released a report highlighting the potential consequences of mobile IDs, including increased tracking and possible abuse by law enforcement.
"Given rampant questionable police searches of mobile devices, statutory protections against such searches—already needed—will become even more vital if people's smartphones are to become a central and routine part of interactions with law enforcement," according to the report.
Smartphone accessibility is another issue, since studies show that 40% of people over 65 and about 25% of people who make less than $30,000 do not have a smartphone. According to the ACLU report, if there was ever a legal requirement for a digital ID, that could "further disadvantage marginalized communities."
Another fear among data privacy experts: What if Apple's trove of millions of driver's licenses becomes potentially bait for malicious hackers?
Sinnreich admits that Apple has a solid security record. But, he says, data protection systems can fail.
"What happens when Apple messes up? What happens when there is a large security breach and 100 million peoples' information gets leaked?" he said. "We are stuck with this partner who has violated our trust and we have no legal apparatus to hold them accountable or separate ourselves from them."
Editor's note: Apple is among NPR's financial supporters.