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Car and Driver: One State Has Started Putting Drivers’ Licenses on Smartphones


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Caller ID

From the January 2016 issue

Imagine you’ve just caught the flash of red lights in your rearview mirror. As you pull over, your smartphone sends an alert, requesting permission for the police officer to view your license on a mobile device. You scan your thumb for verification, and the cop approaches. She greets you by name and, as she looks over your vehicle, sends the citation you’ve just received to your phone. You can enter your plea and pay the fine right on your device, the officer says, before heading back to her cruiser.


This scenario is inching closer to reality. Last August, the Iowa Department of Transportation spent $40,000 on a pilot program to outfit 15 state employees with a “mobile driver’s license,” or mDL. This iOS app displays a virtual license with a rotatable image of the driver’s head (developers call it the “Harry Potter feature”) after users take a selfie that is verified against their license photo on file. Mark Lowe, director of the Iowa DOT’s Motor Vehicle Division, says the mDL program is the result of public interest in the technology, which could be offered to more Iowans this year.


Caller IDSome proposed benefits seem obvious: Instant updates to addresses and driving records will shorten lines at the DMV, and eliminating physical licenses saves the state production costs. Also, merchants and financial institutions see it as a means of combating fraud. “We can provide more trust in transactions,” says Lowe. “There may be a revenue stream from that.”


The driver’s license is already the de facto standard for proving identity, so it follows that cash-strapped states would seek to monetize this service. A system in which businesses would use a license-reader app to verify a credit-card customer’s identity might net the state a small transaction fee. Bars and restaurants could similarly deploy apps for age verification. Lowe says this could also increase privacy for consumers, who would no ­longer need to expose personal information printed on a physical license, choosing to share only their photo and proof of legal drinking age.


Widespread deployment of digital drivers’ licenses raises various concerns, though. They extend from the mundane—dead phone batteries and poor cell service—to serious security and privacy issues, such as unwanted location tracking, identity theft via software vulnerabilities, and hacked biometric databases. Morpho­Trust USA, a longtime licensing contractor and the mDL developer, points to its expertise in credentialing services as proof that what evolves from this pilot program will be trustworthy. The company already handles TSA PreCheck enrollment for the Department of Homeland Security, and it says using the technology would be optional. “There will always be a way for someone who elects not to use a mobile driver’s license,” says MorphoTrust vice president of state and local sales Jenny Openshaw. “Cards are not going away anytime soon.”


Nor is interest in mDL technology. Several other states are considering it, and Delaware will be launching its pilot later this year. Now, smile for the camera.


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