States say digital licenses are convenient and safe. But critics say they might be a bad idea for civil rights.
By Jenni Bergal
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 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 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.
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].
Colorado, Delaware, Maryland and Wyoming are among the states that have started a digital driver’s license pilot program. Others are exploring the possibility.
“This is a quantum leap improvement over what has been the traditional model for how we ask for and receive identification,” said Geoff Slagle, director of identity management at the motor vehicle administrators’ association. “With this approach, I’m able to verify that the MVA actually created that license for you and that it was overseen by them.”
Only one state — New Mexico — does not allow drivers to use an electronic copy of their insurance card during a traffic stop, according to the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America.
Slagle said digital driver’s licenses won’t replace plastic ones; they’ll simply be a supplement. Everybody still will have to carry a physical license for the foreseeable future. Eventually, officials envision people using digital licenses not only for traffic stops and airport ID but also in bars, grocery stores, casinos, banks, doctor’s offices and as voter ID at polling places.
About 35,000 of Louisiana’s approximately 4 million drivers have signed up to have their license available on the LA Wallet app, said Paige Paxton, a field administrator for the Louisiana Office of Motor Vehicles. And on Election Day, the secretary of state’s office allowed voters to display digital licenses instead of plastic ones.
“We like to move with the times. We saw the potential,” Paxton said. “Our plan is to eventually make it so your registration, insurance or any credential would be on LA Wallet.”
The program was jointly designed by the motor vehicles office, the Louisiana State Police and the Department of Public Safety. It was developed for free by Envoc, a Louisiana software firm, Paxton said, and there has been no cost to the state.
Louisiana residents can download the Apple or Google app for free but must pay a $5.99 activation fee (most of which goes to the software developer; the rest to Google or Apple) that covers them until their driver’s license expires.
Drivers must use a PIN number, fingerprint or both to access their license, which is linked to the DMV data system.
“This is not a static thing,” Paxton said. “It’s a live connect.”
For now, the app only can be used for stops by Louisiana police and for voting, and drivers still must carry a physical license for the foreseeable future, Paxton said. Louisiana’s Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control is developing a policy and training materials for its officers.
LA Wallet was developed after the state legislature passed a measure in 2016 allowing the creation of digitized licenses as an alternative to physical ones.
To address privacy concerns, the law says that displaying a digital license doesn’t serve as consent or authorization for police or anyone else to search or view any other data or app on the mobile device.
And at the request of state police, Paxton said, the policy goes even further: Under its hands-off procedure, police can check the license without having to take the phone from the driver.
“Our state police were concerned,” Paxton said, “that there was a potential that someone could say, ‘Hey, you broke my phone.’ So, who’s liable for that if a screen is shattered?”
So far, the system has been working just fine for state troopers, said Lt. Nick Manale, a Louisiana State Police spokesman.
“We’re not aware of any problems with it, as long as the driver has cellphone connectivity,” he said. “And they always have a physical driver’s license as a backup.”
The app, which Paxton said does not track users’ location, also is built so the screen only shows what’s needed. If a store clerk or bouncer scans it, for example, the app would show only whether the person is old enough to drink.
But critics such as the ACLU’s Marlow are skeptical that digital licenses in Louisiana or anywhere else are a good idea.
By unlocking the license, phone owners could expose their data to whoever is checking it, Marlow said. And, he added, while an officer normally would need a warrant to search a phone, in the real world, drivers who don’t know the law could be pressured into handing over the phone, allowing access to everything from contacts to text messages.
And he worries hackers could access data being transmitted to and from the DMV database.
A group formed by the motor vehicle administrators’ association has been working on a plan to provide standards that would make it possible for digital licenses to work across states. This way, a license from one state could be checked and verified by a device in another.
Wyoming is one of several states that joined a pilot last year to test digital licenses. As part of the first phase, Wyoming officials wanted to see, for example, whether information could be transferred from a tractor-trailer digital driver’s license directly to a highway patrol officer’s cruiser behind the truck.
It worked, said Misty Zimmerman, a deputy program manager at the Wyoming Department of Transportation.
Wyoming is now planning the second phase of its pilot program.
“The first phase was very smooth. There were no hurdles whatsoever,” Zimmerman said. “We have not made any formal commitment [to offer digital licenses to the public]. However, from a department standpoint, I feel we would greatly benefit from having this option for our citizens.”
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.
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. It hopes to start the digital license program by late 2019 or early 2020.
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.
But privacy advocates are concerned about states creating digital license programs that use device-to-device communications rather than just scanning a barcode, as is done in airports and grocery stores.
“That’s ‘1984’ stuff,” said 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.”
And the ACLU’s Marlow worries about expanding the use of digital licenses.
“What’s stored on your physical driver’s license is limited,” Marlow said. “But the digital one has the potential to store a lot more information, and that could be hacked.”
But Slagle, of the motor vehicle administrators’ group, said the ACLU should be more concerned about plastic licenses, which are vulnerable to fraud and counterfeiting. “They should be super excited about something coming along that helps to solve some of those problems,” he said.
Slagle and Lowe predict that every state eventually will offer digital licenses.
“It is not a question of whether or not this is happening, it’s a question of how fast this happens,” Slagle said. “We’re going to do this as fast as we can, but we want to make sure that we get it right.”