Iowa begins testing driver's license app for smartphones

Iowa's new digital driver's license raises privacy concerns as critics question the need to collect residents' personal information all in one place.

AP Photo/Danny Johnston
A man in Iowa ignored police as he rushed his pregnant wife to the hospital. He was pulled over for speeding. In this photo, taken on Jan. 16, an officer looks at a computer monitor in his patrol car in Little Rock, Ark.

Iowa has begun testing a smartphone app that would put state driver’s licenses, and all of the information that implies, on residents’ smartphones. This week, the Iowa Department of Transportation (DOT) announced that hundreds of State employees will take the app live and see how it works in both retail and government settings.

The app, called Mobile Driver License (mDL), is designed to show all of the information on a traditional Iowa license and include a barcode that could be read by the smartphone of a police officer or government official requiring state or federal identification.

This quick scan would provide the officials with the standard information found printed on a plastic license, such as a photo, height, gender, home address, as well as records of outstanding tickets, arrests, and warrants. The feature that seems to most interest the DOT and law enforcement is that the digital card could be instantly updated with new information. No waiting for that ticket you just got to process. Get stopped again, two blocks down the road, and the new ticket will already be part of your record.

"Although we're not yet ready to release the mDL for customer use, the lessons learned in this pilot will demonstrate the use case for our mDL Application to be offered in the future as an option to all citizens across the state, and may help guide other states who want to launch similar digital identity programs,” says Iowa DOT director Paul Trombino in a statement.

As the state rolls out this new program, critics recall an earlier fight over government data collection. The national Welfare Reform Act of 1996, though eventually defeated, stirred up privacy concerns similar to those surrounding mDL. The bill called for national identification cards, which translated primarily to state driver’s licenses becoming one of the only acceptable identifications for doing business with the federal government.

“The card becomes a mini-databank containing such electronically readable information as your driving record, employment, age, sex, race, Social Security number, and criminal record,” wrote Claire Wolfe in a 1998 article for Freeman, a publication put out by the libertarian think-tank Foundation for Economic Education (FEE). “Those data will be available to anyone with the capability of scanning your card.”

Critics of the current law worry that Iowa’s database will expose people’s personal information to anyone interesting in obtaining it, and it’s not just Iowans who are concerned. As other states such as California and Delaware consider the same tech for their drivers, the debate has drawn national attention.

“I don't live in Iowa, but I think it is an interesting idea,” says Fred Telschow, a sound and video engineer from Londonderry, N.H., in an e-mail interview. “They could [theoretically] tie our GPS sensors to the license app, and then they could summon us with tickets for speeding without ever pulling us over. Or track our texting-while-driving habits. Bottom line – wouldn't there be privacy concerns? Databases all over are getting hacked – what happens when this one is compromised, and the hackers now have a back door into my smartphone?”

Mr. Trombino from Iowa’s DOT says this trial period will give the department time to identify and address unexpected consequences. “I firmly believe this is an important first step in creating a one person, one identity, one credential opportunity for our customers," he says.

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