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Daring to go digital: drivers’ licenses get an upgrade

With the advent of new technology, the traditional plastic driver’s license could become a relic of the past.

Image: OneWorldIdentity, (Courtesy of Google Images)

As inventor Dean Kamen famously said, “Every once in a while, a new technology, an old problem, and a big idea turn into innovation.”  No one would dispute that this is truly the digital age—one in which new technology is being rapidly developed to solve age–old problems and cure even the most minor of inconveniences.  In this new, modern era, mobile technology has advanced to the point that people rely on their phones for nearly everything.  Phones are not just phones anymore; they are maps, cameras, televisions, debit cards, and soon, maybe even drivers’ licenses.

Companies like MorphoTrust and Gemalto are leading the way in this digital era by developing the technological and security features that will be required to turn smartphones into “trusted digital identities.”  With a whopping 80 percent of Americans indicating that they would be interested in using this new app–based technology, corporations are willing to go to great lengths to get this technology into the hands of consumers.  Soon, it seems, paper and plastic licenses may become obsolete relics of the past.

The first tests of the digital driver’s license began in Iowa in 2015.  These licenses were accepted by police officers and airport security personnel and included all of the same information contained by their plastic counterparts, including the name, address, date of birth, and photo of the user. The digital driver’s license, however, is much more than just an image.  Unlike the plastic version, a digital license is contained within a smartphone app, complete with its own security system, as well as the potential for data to be downloaded or updated in real–time, directly from the state’s DMV.

Several critics have pointed out the potential for abuse—especially where privacy interests are concerned.

With the development of this new technology, several critics have pointed out the potential for abuse—especially where privacy interests are concerned.  Privacy rights include the right to be free from an unreasonable search and seizure.  In Riley v. California, the Supreme Court held that these rights extend to the contents contained on one’s cell phone.  Citing the vast amount of personal data contained on one’s cellphone, the court held that law enforcement officers may not search a potential suspect’s cell phone absent probable cause or exigent circumstances.

With the advent of the digital license, potential issues could arise in traffic stop situations, as police officers typically take the license and registration back to their own vehicle to process the information.  Although the police are not permitted to search the phone, they would still be able to see any messages or calls that might occur while they are processing the digital license.

The technological companies responsible for developing these apps are already making attempts to combat these potential invasions in privacy.  The technology currently used by law enforcement also needs to change.  MorphoTrust, the company responsible for creating the app used in Iowa, has created a program that would allow police officers to remotely transmit the request for information from a device into their patrol vehicle.  Users would be able to share their license information upon receiving a request, thus eliminating the need for the officer to actually handle the phone.  Additionally, the companies are considering adding features that would block outside apps from being used or accessed while the license is displayed on the screen.

Proponents of digital drivers’ licenses claim that they will be more secure than those issued in the current system.

A potential benefit would be that the user would only need to share the information necessary for that specific transaction.  For example, under the current system, when a person wishes to purchase an item for which an ID is required, such as alcohol, he or she must hand over a physical license, which contains sensitive personal information, such as a home address.  With new digital licenses, users could show only the specific information needed, such as a name, photo, and birthdate.

Proponents of digital driver’s licenses claim that they will be more secure than those issued in the current system.  Some programs, such as the one undergoing its trial phase in Maryland, have added security features including keyboard randomization.  The app, and therefore, the license, is password protected.  Each time the app is accessed, the numbers and letters on the keyboard are rearranged to prevent an unauthorized user from being able to access the app on that particular device.

Digital licenses, such as the ones created by Gemalto, would be more difficult to duplicate than those currently used.  Each digital license issued would have a “public key infrastructure” (PKI) certificate to protect the data from potential hackers.  If the PKI is tampered with, it will immediately be recognized as invalid, thus protecting the user.  If the mobile device is lost or stolen, the DMV would be able to remotely deactivate the app and delete the data it contains.  New licenses could be uploaded and issued to new devices quickly and efficiently as well.

It has been estimated that these programs may also be more cost efficient in the long run.

There are additional benefits to the digital driver’s license system.  By digitizing this data and allowing it to be used by mobile devices, it would be easier for states to keep their information updated.  The DMV could instantaneously update the status of these licenses, and status changes such as revocation would be synchronized when the app is accessed.  Users would also be able to update their information, such as home address or organ donor status through the app, without needing to make an in–person visit to the DMV.  It has been estimated that these programs may also be more cost efficient in the long run.

There are six states that are currently testing these digital driver’s license apps, which will be made available to all iOS and Android users.  Iowa is currently leading the way, with Delaware close behind.  Iowa plans to unveil a pilot version of their new program later this year, after its successful participation in extensive testing programs over the past several years.  These pilot programs will address issues such as privacy and security, especially as it relates to how the data is stored and updated.  Several other state legislatures are currently considering legislation that would authorize the use of these driver’s license apps on smartphones.

There are other issues which have not been adequately addressed.

Before this new technology can become mainstream and effectively replace plastic licenses, there are several issues that must be worked out.  First, users must be able to access the data both online and offline.  Second, it must be highly secure to protect privacy and confidentiality.  Third, it must be seamlessly interoperable between different systems and issuing authorities, such as between iOS and Android systems.  Finally, the data must be managed securely and with integrity, throughout the process of enrollment and verification.  Companies, such as Gemalto, are actively working to address and fix these problems.

There are other issues, too, which have not yet been adequately addressed.  Even the best smartphone is not infallible, and bugs typically come along with any new technology.  In an era without plastic driver’s licenses, what will happen if a phone loses charge, breaks, or is unable to access the DMV’s database due to being in a “dead zone”?  Although the reliability of individual users’ phones may not be an issue the app developers are able to address, state legislatures will have to consider these issues, as well as any potential remedies or repercussions as they prepare to move forward with these programs.

Although this innovation in technology is certainly convenient and would effectively end the need for many people to carry a wallet or bag, it does carry with it problems that could be potentially severe if they are not adequately addressed.  Unless app developers are able to provide workable solutions, it is unlikely that the digital driver’s license will replace its plastic counterpart any time soon.  Until this technology becomes widely accepted and used nationwide, the digital license will likely be used simply as a complement to the plastic license.

Miranda Tarlton
About Miranda Tarlton (4 Articles)
Miranda is a second year law student and serves as a Staff Writer for the Campbell Law Observer. Originally from Charlotte, NC, Miranda attended Campbell University where she obtained a degree in history and criminal justice. Before beginning law school, she worked for a number of years as a kindergarten and ESL teacher in Seoul, Korea. After her 1L year, Miranda worked in the legal department at Workplace Options. Her legal interests include criminal law and international human rights law.