States push for digital driver’s licenses on smartphones

August 3, 2018

Chuck Robinson


Next year, the Iowa DOT plans to offer digital driver’s licenses that reside on the driver’s smartphone. Despite concerns about the security of data on a smartphone, state officials are optimistic about overcoming problems. They think the benefits are worth the effort.

Iowa tested the concept in 2015 among DOT employees.

In 2019, Iowa DOT expects to have a phased rollout of the program before it is available to every Iowan, including commercial drivers, Melissa Spiegel, director of the motor vehicle division of Iowa DOT, told Land Line.

Iowa seems in the vanguard of deploying this technology. However, many other states are close behind. Among them: Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Delaware, Idaho, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, New Jersey, Tennessee, Utah and Wyoming.

In 2017, Colorado, Maryland and Wyoming began live pilot programs to test the tech.

Also in 2017, Arkansas passed passed a law allowing the state Office of Driver Services to issue a digital driver’s license for a $10 fee. The state recently selected a vendor, Idemia, and it plans to offer digital driver’s licenses in 2019, reports Tonie Shields, administrator of the office.

Inertia is building up behind issuing digital driver’s licenses.

Before explaining more about the Iowa digital driver’s license development effort, here is a word of caution from OOIDA’s director of security operations, Doug Morris.

“In the digital age, everyone wants to put everything on their phone, but we know that every computer program can be hacked into, every app can be hacked into,” Morris warned.

It is true that smartphones are being used for banking, airline boarding passes and other important situations. According to Allstate Insurance, as of April 2018, there are 47 states that permit drivers to use a digital copy of their insurance card during a traffic stop. Smartphones are being widely used in a variety of applications.

Even so, Morris suggests being cautious.

“Something easier isn’t always the best, especially if something gets compromised,” Morris said. “There is a lot to be said for having your driver’s license in your pocket (and not on your smartphone).”

At Iowa DOT, Spiegel said the next phase of development of a digital driver’s license app includes working with law enforcement, other government agencies, the banking industry and retailers that rely on driver’s licenses and state ID cards to verify identities.

At no time in the near future does Iowa DOT expect digital driver’s licenses to replace the conventional card, Spiegel said. In fact, drivers must have a conventional card as backup, much as commercial truck drivers who must have paper logs to backup electronic digital logs.

One point made by Spiegel and by companies promoting digital driver’s license technology is that at no time must the smartphone leave the hands of the license holder.

“The concept of using mobile technology in this way actually does not include handing over your phone to someone for them to physically inspect,” Spiegel said.

Instead, a law enforcement officer or someone checking the digital license holder’s age or identity use their own devices to receive information.

The company helping Iowa DOT create its digital driver license system, French company Idemia (which has a North American HQ in Billerica, Mass.) says the same thing on its website.

In fact, another company involved in digital driver’s licenses illustrates in a video a law enforcement officer showing a badge with a QR code to the license holder that is scanned by the license holder’s smartphone before the officer gets access to the information.

That company, Amsterdam-based Gemalto, in 2016 won a grant from the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology for a pilot program to develop a smartphone-based digital driver’s license. Colorado, Idaho, Maryland, Wyoming and Washington, D.C., are partners in the pilot program.

Here are some of the positive attributes touted by companies and agencies involved in developing digital driver’s licenses:

  • The card issuer can quickly identify fraudulent licenses, even out-of-state licenses.
  • There is no geo-location tagging or tracking via the smartphone app. That is because it is not connected to other elements of the smartphone. The driver’s license app is only active when the license holder launches the app and enters a PIN or fingerprint. The rest of the time, the data is not accessible by anyone.
  • No one can access the digital license info without the correct credentials.
  • If a smartphone is lost or stolen, the digital driver’s license can be quickly disabled.
  • The driver chooses the level of information to provide. There is a level for law enforcement officers and another for bar owners checking the license holder’s age.
  • Addresses and other information can be easily updated with digital licenses. Also, if a license is suspended, that information is quickly updated.
  • The app would work even if the driver was in a cell phone dead zone. The info that was updated and synced the last time the app was opened will be available.

Truckers have reason to be extra sensitive about privacy concerns. Not only is there an electronic logging device keeping tabs on them, but their lives and workspace are crammed together in a compact space. There are dispatchers and others keeping in contact. Some have to contend with driver-facing cameras. It is more unsettling, I believe, when you go to, say Idemia’s website. They promote themselves as leaders in “augmented identity.” It includes face-recognition tech, banking and cryptocurrency programs, biometric IDs and a lot that is beyond just ID cards.

It makes sense to be leery about the development of digital driver’s licenses.