The driver's license of the future is coming to your smartphone
A few states have begun the journey toward offering a digital version of your driver's license that would reside on your phone. But the going could be stop and go for a while.
Lance WhitneyContributing Writer
Lance Whitney is a freelance technology writer and trainer and a former IT professional. He's written for Time, CNET, PCMag, and several other publications. He's the author of two tech books--one on Windows and another on LinkedIn.
The road ahead may soon lead to a digital driver's license on your mobile phone.
The printed plastic driver's license has been a standard for decades, acting not just as proof that you can drive but as an ID to verify your age and identity. Getting issued a license is a rite of passage for many a teenager. The license has a status that transcends mere motoring.
Now, just as concert tickets, airline boarding passes, Starbucks loyalty cards and even your wallet are migrating onto your smartphone, your driver's license seems headed down the same route.
"The world is changing, and a lot of transactions and activities that people do are now done in digital formats," said Mike Williams, chief of communications for the Department of Motor Vehicles in Delaware. "You can do so much with your smartphone. You can pay at the gas pump. You can go to the grocery store. You don't even need a debit card sometimes anymore. So this is just a movement in that direction."
Delaware is among several US states -- including the bellwether of California -- considering digital driver's licenses, and prototypes will go into pilot tests in some places this year. If those tests go well, the first smattering of virtual licenses could be offered to the public as early as 2016.
The digital version would resemble your printed license, with the same information, including your name, address and date of birth, along with a photo. And just as your printed license contains a scannable barcode so machines can read the information, so too would the digital version.
Your digital driver's license would also be more than just a static image of your regular driver's license. Instead, it would be a full-fledged mobile app with security protection and potentially real-time data downloaded directly from your state's Department of Motor Vehicles.
But for all the convenience that would offer, hazard lights are flashing for some critics. Do you want to hand your smartphone to a police officer if you get pulled over? If the officer can look at your license, what else would be accessible, and what would be off-limits?
"We have a number of serious, unresolved concerns about how the use of the smartphone as a driver's license may implicate privacy rights," said Rita Bettis, legal director for the ACLU of Iowa. "These include the rights to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures of one's phone and its contents during traffic stops."
There are technical issues, too, on the law enforcement side. "For example," Bettis said, "as a practical matter, our understanding is that the system that troopers use in their patrol isn't easily compatible with the driver's licenses."
That system is known as Tracs (Traffic and Criminal Software program), which the police use to complete reports, manage incidents and file charges, according to Paul Steier, director of the Bureau of Investigation and Identity Protection for the Iowa Department of Transportation. At a traffic stop, the barcode on a physical driver's license can be scanned into Tracs.
"We will be working to test integrating the digital license technology for Tracs use," Steier said. "Since the barcode is the main source today for Tracs we will continue using the barcode on the digital driver's license, which will also be used by retailers." Other methods will be tried as well, he said. "For example, can an officer use their own smartphone to validate and read the digital driver's license from the subject's smart phone, then transmit that into Tracs?"
As those issues get worked out, the adoption of digital driver's licenses is bound to move in fits and starts.
Universal acceptance of an electronic version of your license is something that's likely to take years. The states that issue such licenses would need to spread the word among businesses, law enforcement agencies and other parties that digital driver's licenses are legitimate identity documents. Even then, though, you're bound to run into restaurants, bars and other businesses that will question the validity of a driver's license on your smartphone.
A digital version wouldn't replace your regular license right away, then, but would instead be a complement to it.
What's in the works
In January, the Delaware House of Representatives passed a resolution asking the DMV there "to study and consider issuing optional digital driver's licenses for Delaware motorists." A pilot program is in the works for this year in which DMV employees would try out carrying and using digital licenses.
A similar pilot program will kick off this year in Iowa that would also tap DMV employees and their smartphones to serve as test subjects. Local businesses and retailers would be in on the pilot.
In California, San Fernando Valley Assemblyman Matt Dababneh in February introduced a bill that would let the DMV develop a smartphone app for a digital driver's license. Other states looking into the technology include Arizona and New Jersey.
Watch this: Digital driver's licenses may use Harry Potter-style moving photos & selfies for security
A software development company called MorphoTrust is working toward a digital driver's license app and is collaborating with Iowa and Delaware on their pilot programs. It already provides driver's licensing systems to the DMVs in 42 states, and began thinking about digital versions of the driver's license a couple of years ago.
"What we began to hear is that, wouldn't it be great if I could carry my driver's license on my mobile phone," said Jenny Openshaw, vice president of state and local sales for the Billerica, Mass., company.
The pilot in Iowa is set to start within the next 90 to 120 days, according to Openshaw. Though it's unknown exactly how long the pilot will last, she expects to have some meaningful results back by the end of the summer or early fall. The pilot would test the downloading and rendering of the digital driver's license on mobile devices and how the DMV would update the license with changes of address and other adjustments.
The Delaware pilot is expected to launch by around midyear. After the pilot program is completed, and any glitches are resolved, it could take as little as 60 or 90 days before a public rollout, according to Williams. But that's assuming all goes smoothly.
Iowa and Delaware will conduct the pilots on iOS devices. MorphoTrust has plans to test additional smartphone platforms, including but not limited to Android and Windows.
Pros and cons
A virtual driver's license would be part of the larger trend toward digital replacements for things in your wallet -- and for the wallet itself. Most notable are payment options such as Apple Pay and Google Wallet that aim to eliminate your need to carry physical credit cards by letting you purchase items via your smartphone. Many retailers offer apps that incorporate digital versions of their physical reward and loyalty cards. And some insurance companies now offer digital versions of auto insurance cards.
The states pushing for a digital driver's license believe it would be more secure than the conventional one. The app would contain its own layer of security, perhaps a PIN or a form of biometrics such as your fingerprint or facial recognition. That would be on top of how you already secure your smartphone with a passcode or fingerprint.
A digital license could also be updated more easily than could your plastic one. Go online to change your address or other piece of information, and the DMV changes your data in its database. As currently envisioned, that data would be downloaded to or synced with your smartphone each time you open your digital license app. It would also serve as a backup or alternative should the printed version go missing.
The bonus would also be fewer trips to the DMV, a benefit that should get cheers from all of us who've ever had to wait in those long lines.
So far, so good. Then there are potential pitfalls that will have to be paved over.
One is technological. What happens if your phone loses its charge and you can't turn it on to access your driver's license? Or what if you're in a dead zone, and your phone can't connect to the DMV's database? These are all issues the states will have to consider as they move forward with their pilot programs.
Initially, during the pilot phase, the Iowa digital license will be securely stored locally on the recipient's smartphone.
Or if your smartphone fell into the wrong hands, and the digital driver's license was not sufficiently secured, your information would be up for grabs. Yes, the DMVs aim to provide the proper security so no one can read your digital license without the right credentials. But the security would have to be solid.
The pilots in both Iowa and Delaware will explore the security and privacy issues related to where the license data is stored and maintained and how it is updated.
Privacy could be the real sticking point. Let's say a police officer or retailer needs to see your digital driver's license. You turn over your smartphone. Can that person peek at other items and personal information on your phone? What happens if a sensitive notification pops up onscreen?
"There are concerns that officers may have to physically touch the phone, which could lead to privacy issues and concerns of damaging the device if dropped," said Steier, of Iowa's Department of Transportation. "Emails or texts may come on the phone while in the possession of an officer, which could be lead to search and seizure issues."
According to the proposals from Iowa and Delaware, you wouldn't simply hand over your phone to the other person. Instead, you would unlock and then show your driver's license to the person requesting it. At no time, would your phone have to leave your own hands. That would be different from today when you give your license to the police officer, who walks back to his with it.
Iowa and Delaware are also considering a feature that would block notifications and other personal messages from flashing on your smartphone screen when the license is on display.
"The norm today is physically touching the plastic license," said Steier. "The concept of touching a smartphone, or even verifying information remotely while not touching the phone, is a new concept and one that needs to be tested. Can biometrics be used by the holder to open the app before the officer verifies it?"
Those issues, of course, assume that a police officer or business would even be ready to accept your digital driver's license as a legitimate ID. Protocols need to be worked out so that, say, a state that doesn't use digital licenses might still accept yours as valid. Federal agencies would need to be up-to-speed as well.
'It's about time'
California, Iowa and Delaware are all working to raise awareness among agencies and the public -- how the license would look, how it would function, how to recognize a fake.
Delaware is also considering how the digital driver's license might work on a national level, and just how long it would take to raise public awareness.
"In the future when this is an option that people have," said Williams of the Delaware DMV, "we wouldn't be able to guarantee that people would be able to get the same services in the state of Texas that they'd be able to get in the state of Delaware with their digital licenses. But in five or 10 years, if there are 20 or 30 states doing this, then it would be more of a nationwide known commodity and acceptance."
That's why the initiatives being discussed would, for starters, offer the virtual license as a secondary option. In Delaware, for example, you would automatically receive your plastic license and then be asked if you'd also like the electronic version.
And as with many new technologies, there may be a bit of a generation gap in the early going.
"Just in the little bit of coverage we've gotten on it in the last few weeks, some older drivers have said 'Oh, my gosh, I don't want to do this,'" Williams said. "Younger drivers have said, "Wow, this is great. It's about time.'"