Man Uses iPad to Cross the US Border: Digital IDs to Replace the Real Thing?

by Mike Mintz on January 4, 2012 · 0 comments

in Legal Technology


Need to cross the US border? There’s an App for that (sort of).

Martin Reisch, from Montreal set out from his home with a sack full of presents for family in Vermont. He was picturing chestnuts roasting on an open fire and thankfully he brought his iPad along for short the trip. Good thing too, because Mr Reisch forgot his passport at home, but was able to use his iPad at the border, to show the officers a high resolution, scanned copy of his official documents.

What happened next was nothing short of a Christmas miracle: the border officers let him cross.

In an article from BBC News Canada, Mr. Reisch said that he realized this was not a typical circumstance. Speaking about the experience, Mr Reisch said the border guard “took the iPad into the little border hut. He was in there a good five, six minutes. It seemed like an eternity. When he came back, he took a good long pause before wishing me a Merry Christmas.”

Neither the US nor the Canadian Border Authorities have yet to comment on the story.

Until recently Canadian citizens could cross into the US with only a driver’s license. New laws require a passport, enhanced driver’s license or Nexus pass (a program designed to let pre-approved, low-risk travelers cross the Canada–U.S. border quickly) for land crossings, and do not have any specific provisions for whether scans or photocopies can be used.

According to the State Departments’ website, US Citizens traveling to Canada without a passport are required to do the following:

If a U.S. citizen traveling to Canada does not have a passport, passport card, or approved alternate document such as a NEXUS card, they must show a government-issued photo ID (e.g. Driver’s License) and proof of U.S. citizenship such as a U.S. birth certificate, naturalization certificate, or expired U.S. passport. Children under 16 need only present proof of U.S. citizenship.

While there are currently no regulations permitting electronic scans of these documents to replace presentation of original copies  there is a progressive push by the US government to roll out an electronic passport program. Unfortunately, the progress is only in making the hard copies of passports more reliable; it doesn’t creating a digital form.

An electronic passport is similar to a traditional passport book, except it has an electronic chip inside that contains personally identifiable information (“PII”) to verify the travelers identity. According to this page on the State Department’s website, the data includes:

  • The same data visually displayed on the data page of the passport;
  • A biometric identifier in the form of a digital image of the passport photograph, which will facilitate the use of face recognition technology at ports-of-entry;
  • The unique chip identification number; and
  • A digital signature to protect the stored data from alteration.

QR Code of the URL for

What if the government could embed all of this data securely on an image rather than a hard chip?

Quick Response Codes or “QR Codes” are black modules arranged in a square pattern on a white background, that can hold up to four standardized kinds of data (numeric, alphanumeric, byte/binary, and Kanji) and can be extended virtually by any kind of data. Originally used by the automotive industry for inventory control, QR Codes have now found their way into marketing and consumer sales as customers use smart devices to interact the information on the code.

Governments should explore the use of QR codes and similar visual technology to embed and verify all of the data points above. The use of a QR code on an official government digital ID could put into popular use what Mr. Reisch stumbled upon this past holiday. Eventually, the use of smart devices like iPads and Android phones could replace wallets.

“I see the future as 100% being able to cross with your identity on a digital device – it’s just a matter of time,” Mr. Reisch said. With a little innovation in the border control and licensing offices, government could be on the verge of creating an existence without wallets.

When do you think we will see the switch to digital IDs and should it happen at all?


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