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A handful of states are racing to be the first to offer their residents a driver’s license they can load onto their smartphones. But some of those who would be most affected by that innovation are wondering what the rush is about.
Last December Iowa’s Department of Transportation revealed it was working on a smartphone application that might eventually replace the state’s conventional plastic driver’s license. The Iowa DOT also said it would be conducting a pilot program relying on Department of Motor Vehicles employees and their smartphones to test a prototype of the app. If that testing goes well, the app could be rolled out as early as 2016.
Not to be out-“teched,” Delaware’s General Assembly adopted a resolution (SCR 4) in January, according to LexisNexis State Net’s legislative database, requesting that the state’s Division of Motor Vehicles “study and consider issuing optional digital driver’s licenses for Delaware motorists.” The state is now rushing to develop its own driver’s license app.
“We’d like to go first,” said Delaware Division of Motor Vehicles Director Jennifer Cohan, according to the Washington Post.
California could enter the race as well if it enacts AB 221, a bill introduced in February and passed by the Assembly last week providing for the creation of a driver’s license app there. But it’s unlikely the Golden State will reach the finish line ahead of Iowa or Delaware, given that in its current form AB 221 only calls for the completion of a feasibility study by December 1, 2016, according to State Net’s database. Meanwhile, New Jersey’s Senate has passed SB 2694, providing for a report on the feasibility of electronic driver’s licenses in that state.
MorphoTrust USA, a Massachusetts-based software development company that provides driver’s licensing systems to DMVs in 42 states and is helping Iowa and Delaware develop their driver’s license apps, started thinking about the idea of a digital driver’s license a couple of years ago, according to The News Journal in Wilmington, Delaware.
“It’s an idea whose time has come,” said Jenny Openshaw, MorphoTrust’s vice president for state and local sales.
Some have their doubts about that.
“From a law enforcement perspective I really don’t see any advantages,” Sgt. Scott Bright of the Iowa State Patrol told National Public Radio. “The first thing I thought about is if we’re making a traffic stop, is that violator looking for their cellphone before we stop the car.”
Some have also raised the question of whether officers would be able to scan the information from a violator’s driver’s license app into the system in their patrol cars for managing incidents without physically carrying the driver’s cellphone back to the squad car, presenting serious privacy issues. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously last year that cell phones are protected against warrantless searches, with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. noting the devices provide access to an array of personal information not previously accessible through a single search.
“Modern cell phones are not just another technological convenience,” Roberts wrote for the court.
It would also likely take time for digital driver’s licenses to be widely accepted as a valid form of identification, potentially creating problems for drivers with digital licenses who get pulled over in an area where a conventional license is required. And what happens if the driver’s phone loses cell reception or its battery runs out?
Then there are the potential technical glitches.
“We’ve all stood in line at the airport behind the people trying to scan their QR codes to get aboard the airplane” and failing repeatedly, said Doug Jacobson of Iowa State University’s Information Assurance Center, according to NPR.
But digital drivers’ licenses aren’t without advantages. For example, although they would resemble plastic licenses with drivers’ names, addresses, dates of birth, photos and scannable barcodes, they would be more than just static digital versions of conventional licenses. They would instead be full-blown mobile apps, allowing users such functionality as the ability to update their address or other information -- without a trip to the DMV.
Computer security experts also say a digital license requiring a PIN code or possibly a thumb print or facial recognition to access might be more secure than a plastic license, should you lose it or leave it lying around.
Supporters of digital drivers’ licenses are already grappling with many of the concerns that have been raised about them. Paul Steier, director of the Bureau of Investigation and Identity Protection for the Iowa Department of Transportation, said his state is looking at other ways for law enforcement officials to enter driver’s license information into their Tracs (Traffic and Criminal Software) system during traffic stops, in addition to the usual method of scanning license barcodes.
“For example, can an officer use their own smartphone to validate and read the digital driver’s license from the subject’s smart phone, then transmit that into Tracs?” he asked.
And both Iowa and Delaware are exploring the idea of a feature that would block notifications or other personal messages from popping up on a smartphone’s screen when a digital license is being displayed.
Addressing the delayed adoption issue, Mike Williams, chief of communications for Delaware’s DMV said that initially “we wouldn’t be able to guarantee that people would be able to get the same services in the state of Texas that they’d be able to get in the state of Delaware with their digital licenses.”
“But in five or 10 years, if there are 20 or 30 states doing this, then it would be more of a nationwide known commodity and acceptance,” he said.
There does seem to be an inevitability to the digital driver’s license, given the ever-increasing functionality of smartphones and their popularity among 18- to 29-year-olds, over four in five of whom own the devices, compared to six in 10 American adults in general, according to the Pew Research Center.
Still, even Iowa DOT spokeswoman Andrea Henry admits drivers aren’t exactly clamoring for digital licenses right now.
“It’s really about just keeping up with technology,” she said, according to NPR.
MorphoTrust’s Openshaw, likewise, told NPR: “I think that the digital driver’s license doesn’t so much solve a problem as it fulfills a need and a desire on the part of the American consumer to have everything that is important to us in electronic form and on the mobile device of our choice. People are more likely to leave their wallet at home these days than their cellphone.”