Digital driver's licenses come with one small (big) problem

Iowa announces it is testing driver's licenses on phones. But what if a police officer asks to take your phone, so that he can check your license in his own vehicle?

Can a digital driver's license ever be secure? Iowa wants to find out. KETV/YouTube screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

Our cars, our houses and the rest of our lives will soon be controllable through our cell phones.

It's convenient and, well, it allows us to be entirely digital, traceable beings.

When Iowa's Department of Transportation announced Wednesday that it was testing driver's licenses on phones, there was fascination. The idea was that there would be a free app that contained your license. When you need to show it, you tap in a PIN code and there it would be.

It's easy to forget conventional driver's licenses. They're piddly and fiddly. How much more convenient it would be if they were just stored in our phones, along with our boarding passes, insurance cards and pictures of the lover we met last Friday?

Just as I was bathing in the sense of it all, I suffered a momentary lack of oxygenation. Like many others, I'm not sure I would enjoy freely handing my phone to a police officer. They can be curious people -- sometimes, very curious.

If I hand them my phone in order to show them my license, won't it be a little tempting for them to check what else I have on it? After all, during many a traffic stop, an officer will ask you to stay in your car, take your license and insurance, then go back to his or her own vehicle to check their legitimacy.

If your phone was taken, wouldn't the temptation of additional discovery be too great? After all, who could forget the police officer who insisted that everyone who plays frisbee golf must be a pot smoker? (That happened in, oh, Iowa.)

What if he had the frisbee golfer's phone in his vehicle and tried to search it to confirm his hunch?

Iowa's Department of Transportation told me it's aware of this issue. Andrea Henry, the department's director of strategic communication, said that the department is examining different forms of technology that might reassure citizens.

One is the idea of the officer having the capability to scan the license on your phone, without it ever leaving your hands. "We're also looking at technology that might lock the rest of your phone and only leave the driver's license app open," Henry told me.

She explained that though the announcement came yesterday, the department didn't expect to have a working app before 2016.

It's heartening to hear that the potential insecurities are being considered. Just as governments want everything to be ultimately searchable, so police forces know that so much evidence of our lives exists on cell phones. Naturally, they'd like to have access to it all.

For example, last year New Jersey legislators proposed that police should be able to examine the cell phone of anyone involved in a car accident, without a warrant.

However, the Supreme Court insisted insisted in June that, in most cases, cell phones could not be searched without a warrant.

Still, public trust in authority isn't quite at its apex these days. I'm not even sure how much ordinary people trust each other anymore.

It will be instructive to see if Iowa can implement technology that creates convenience without eroding privacy.

Its attempt will be one of many as the Internet of Things becomes the Internet of People.

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