Government

Could plastic driver's licenses become a thing of the past?

Louisiana expected to have digital licenses in July, Iowa in 2020

Iowa DOT

This is a sample of the Iowa digital driver’s license now in development and undergoing testing. The state intends to have the digital option available to Iowa drivers in late 2019 or early 2020.
Iowa DOT This is a sample of the Iowa digital driver’s license now in development and undergoing testing. The state intends to have the digital option available to Iowa drivers in late 2019 or early 2020.
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WASHINGTON — Millions of people may be able to show their smartphones rather than a plastic card to prove they’re legit to drive, vote or buy a beer in coming years.

Louisiana in July became the first state to make digital licenses available to anyone who wants them, and at least 14 other states — including Iowa — either have developed a program, run a pilot or are studying the possibility, according to the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators.

Seventy-seven percent of American adults already own a smartphone, including 94 percent of adults under age 30, and many state motor vehicle officials think residents will appreciate the convenience of having their driver’s license available in an app.

Officials also like that the licenses are connected to a central database and can be updated easily with, for example, suspensions or revocations.

And unlike plastic cards that can easily be counterfeited or tampered with, mobile licenses are less susceptible to fraud, they say.

IOWA IN 2020

Iowa, which in 2016 became the first state to start a digital license pilot program, is moving ahead with its plan to offer mobile licenses, turning to a system that uses biometrics and beefed-up security.

It hopes to start the digital license program by late 2019 or early 2020.

The state hired a French multinational company that specializes in providing secure credentials, IDEMIA, to develop the pilot for just under $50,000, said Mark Lowe, director of the state Department of Transportation.

And after a competitive bidding process for the current digital license project, Iowa awarded the company a contract of about $1.2 million initially.

IDEMIA works with about 80 percent of U.S. states on driver’s licensing program.

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The driver’s app would be able to interact with another device used by the person checking the license. The device-to-device exchange would authorize information sharing and verify that the person is who he says he is.

“The really powerful thing is that once we bind you to that credential and verify it, you can use it for hunting and fishing licenses, weapons’ permits, tax returns — all sorts of things,” Lowe said. “There’s a ton of convenience and efficiencies.”

Iowa is working with other states to make sure that the system it is developing can be used outside of the state.

Lowe said that’s the biggest hurdle — developing common standards for digital licenses across states.

Four other states — Colorado, Delaware, Maryland and Wyoming — are among those states that have started a digital driver’s license pilot program.

States looking into the digital licenses say they won’t replace plastic ones, at least for now.

In Louisiana, about 35,000 of the state’s approximately 4 million drivers have signed up to have their license available on the LA Wallet app.

privacy concerns

But as is often the case when something analog goes digital, privacy advocates worry about the potential for government overreach and fear the digital licenses and motor vehicle databases will become vulnerable to hackers.

“These are shiny new things, and states are only talking about the upsides,” said Chad Marlow, a senior counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union in New York. “It is very important the public understand there are significant risks with digital driver’s licenses. I think it is irresponsible for states to offer them (without explaining those risks).

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“What’s stored on your physical driver’s license is limited,” he said. “But the digital one has the potential to store a lot more information, and that could be hacked.””

“That’s ‘1984’ stuff,” added Alan Butler, senior counsel at the Washington, D.C.-based Electronic Privacy Information Center, a nonprofit research group. “You’re opening up a new channel of attack or breach or nonconsensual monitoring of a person. It creates substantial privacy and data security risks with no added benefit.”

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