At Liberty by Adam Sullivan

Iowa embraces mobile ID

Adam Sullivan is a writer, activist and communications adviser in Iowa City.
Adam Sullivan is a writer, activist and communications adviser in Iowa City.

Iowa may soon become the first state to offer smartphone-based ID cards. When Iowa announced a pilot program for its mobile ID app in 2014, the project grew international media attention. Outsiders were amused that rural Iowa — with our aging population and slow internet — was an early adopter.

The mobile ID app has been available to a small number of DOT employees for testing, but Iowa Department of Transportation officials said in the Des Moines Register this week that the project is on track for release in 2018.

A promotional video from the mobile ID developer, MorphoTrust, shows how the system will work. In many cases, the mobile ID will be used without physically giving a device to a police officer, bouncer or store clerk. Instead, users can use short-range wireless technology to beam their information to another device.

A key benefit is the ability to display or transmit partial information. For instance, you could verify your age to purchase liquor, without making your home address available to a cashier.

It’s clear developers took into account concerns from civil libertarians like me, who don’t like the idea of Americans handing over their unlocked cell phones to police officers. I suspect police officers don’t want the liability of accidentally breaking a phone or being wrongly accused of improperly gathering evidence.

However, the privacy kinks have not been worked out. The mobile ID app will require a user to enter an email address and take photos of their face to confirm their identity through facial recognition technology. Developers have mentioned incorporating fingerprint recognition technology, though it’s not clear how that would work.

One alleged benefit of the mobile ID system is what the company calls “liveness.” The phone will have a “constant connection” to a state government database, according to MorphoTrust’s advertising materials.


As Iowa DOT Motor Vehicle Division Director Mark Lowe explains in the company’s promotional video “We can move into thinking of it as something that creates an ongoing two-way customer relationship that allows the customer to access services, to receive information and to send information to third parties.”

All of that means Iowans may no longer need to visit a DOT office to change addresses or upgrade to a 21-or-older license. It also could make transactions requiring an ID quicker.

Maybe my tinfoil hat is too tight, but I believe any system that relies on mass collection of email addresses, facial photos, or fingerprints should be met with scrutiny. We should take caution to ensure Iowans’ data can’t be used for unintended purposes, either by government or data thieves.

There are conveniences offered by a mobile ID, especially when paired with increasingly prevalent wireless payment systems. However, those conveniences come with the need to consider security risks and install proper safeguards. Once mobile IDs become available, they will be voluntary for the foreseeable future. Iowans who are concerned about their digital privacy will still be able to choose a traditional ID card. I think I’ll stick with plastic.

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