An Austrian passport-maker in business for 200 years says it is ready to put vital identity documents on that most personal of devices – the smartphone.

Oesterreichische Staatsdruckerei Holding AG, in business for more than 200 years, says an app it has developed can safely handle all kinds of personal data, completely replacing delicate, easily mislaid physical documents.

Governments around the world are already trying to put smartphones to work, yet users are often required to download one app for airport security and a different one to replicate their driver’s license. OeSD believes its software can handle all types of ID, and says that if it sells during the coming year, the system could go into operation in 2017.

“Everything’s moving to the smartphone,” Lukas Praml, the executive director of OeSD in charge of innovation, said in an interview. “There’s only one problem: personal identification and driver’s licenses aren’t even in the pipeline, nowhere.”

OeSD started life in 1804 as the Austrian empire’s printing press. Now in the hands of Austrian businessmen, the firm has gradually become more tech-focused. When electronic chips were added to passports in 2006, OeSD began a transformation away from what Praml calls a“classic printer”. It started developing mobile applications three to four years ago, and writing code is now an ever-bigger part of its business, he said.

This brings the company closer to the turf of Google Inc. and Apple Inc., whose greater focus on web commerce is slowly bringing credit cards into digital wallets. Getting rid of physical identification, on the other hand, may be “too specific” of a problem for the big firms to tackle, said Peter Parycek, a professor for technology law and e-government at the Donau-Universitaet in Krems, Austria. With only governments as potential clients, it’s also more likely that a company that’s close to the state would come up with such a thing, he said.

The Austrian software, dubbed “My Identity App,” requires two devices – one for the user, the other for the person checking the identity – as well as a central register for citizen data. No personal data is permanently stored on the device, but rather pulled from the public cloud, and only when required. Users can choose exactly which kind of information the other person gets access to, meaning the bouncer at the local night club will see less personal data than a police officer.

Security and Usability

“There’s no rocket science behind the basic concept,” Praml said, while demonstrating a working version of the app at OeSD’s headquarters outside Vienna. “While security is obviously the central issue, it all has to remain usable,” he added.

Others are trialling similar approaches. The U.S. state of Iowa recently started letting employees of the Department of Transportation use driver’s licenses on smartphones. According to a video posted online by MorphoTrust Inc., the company behind the technology, it uses facial recognition for identity checks and largely replicates the physical appearance of a driver’s license. Airside Mobile, a firm partnered with U.S. customs, also offers an app which lets pre-authorized U.S. and Canadian citizens a quick path through immigration at certain airports.

For the Future

The pace of technological change is one of the main reasons why sensitive applications are only now appearing on smartphones, Parycek said. OeSD’s solution requires authorities to check information using either a smartphone or a tablet computer of their own.

“Governments should really think about whether their online offerings are still up to date,” Parycek said. “Every activity in this area is important.”

The odds are that OeSD will have to venture into developing nations to get its app off the ground. The firm recently presented its tech to the U.S. motor vehicle authorities, and received positive feedback but no commitment. A dense web of rules and legislation makes it hard to replace an identity system in a developed nation. But not every country makes its citizens, especially drivers, carry a physical ID.

Countries in Africa, Asia or in eastern Europe could be among the first clients, said Praml. Estonia, which has a wide- ranging digital governance program, hasn’t looked at OeSD’s app, said Taavi Kotka, the country’s chief information officer, in an e-mail. He added that Estonia doesn’t require its citizens to carry a physical ID because the “police has all information needed in their car online.”

Karl-Heinz Grundboeck, a spokesman for the Austrian interior ministry, said digital identities are a topic for the future. “The proposal by the OeSD is interesting and one that can be discussed.” But, he added: “It’s certainly nothing that will be employed by next month.”

This article was written by Alexander Weber from Bloomberg and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

Photo Credit: One of the current ID products from the Austrian State Printing House.