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Legal experts, police express concerns about possible privacy violations.
Mobile technology is at war with the wallet.
Not “wallet” as in the metaphorical sense meaning money, but rather the literal wallet. One by one, the cards that we carry around—thereby justifying the continued existence of billfolds—are being replaced by mobile apps.
Why carry around cash when you can pay for a cab with Uber? Why bother with a debit card when there’s Apple Pay and Google Wallet? Heck, if you have the Starbucks app you don’t even need to lug around that gift card you got over the holidays.
But there’s one reason many of us still carry a wallet everywhere we go. That’s because the wallet is still synonymous with the driver’s license. But that might be about to change thanks to the Iowa Department of Transportation.
Iowa DOT is in the early stages of developing mobile software that can take the place of conventional driver’s licenses. Under the proposed system, Iowans would still receive a plastic license, but according to DOT Director Paul Trombino, the new technology would allow you to transfer information from the license onto the app, which would have a two-step verification process that includes some type of biometric.
For Trombino and other state officials, it’s about staying on top of emerging technologies, even though they admit a smartphone driver’s license app isn’t exactly something that Iowans are actively calling for at the moment.
“[W]e do know that customers are demanding services through their mobile devices more and more,” Iowa DOT spokeswoman Andrea Henry told NPR. “It’s really about just keeping up with technology.”
Not only is Iowa keeping up, but it’s actually ahead of the curve in this country as the first state to propose such a system. However, other foreign governments such as Great Britain and the United Arab Emirates are currently working on similar technology.
As Forbes points out, the idea of smartphone driver’s licenses doesn’t sound so far fetched, as 30 states already allow driver’s to used their mobile devices to show proof of insurance. But people familiar with the plan have expressed significant concerns, chiefly worries about privacy rights.
If you’ve ever been pulled over by a police officer, you probably know that after you hand over your license and registration, the officer usually takes the documents back to the squad car to run a check against law enforcement databases. According to West Des Moines attorney Nicholas Sarcone, there’s no reason to believe that officers wouldn’t have to do that with a smartphone licenses as well, and that opens the door to problematic fourth amendment issues.
Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it is illegal for police to seize and browse the content of one’s phone without first obtaining a warrant. Sarcone said having licenses on phones makes it easier for police to violate this ruling.
“I see the greater potential for harm coming from purely accidental circumstances, where the police officer has to open the license and by mistake comes across something they shouldn’t come across,” Sarcone told the Des Moines Register. “In theory, it’s a really cool idea. The thought of having my license on my phone is great, but it can be a problem.”
Even law enforcement fear this possibility, with Sgt. Scott Bright of the Iowa State Patrol saying “From a law enforcement perspective, I really don’t see any advantages.”
MorphoTrust USA, the app developer designing the smart phone licenses was unable to immediately respond to the Daily Dot’s questions about these privacy concerns.
A spokesman for MorphoTrust USA told NPR that while the proposed app isn’t necessarily solving an existing problem with conventional driver’s licenses, she said the app would likely prove popular with motorist.
“[I]t fulfills a need and a desire on the part of the American consumer to have everything that is important to us in electronic form and on the mobile device of our choice,” said Jenny Openshaw of MorphoTrust USA. “People are more likely to leave their wallet at home these days than their cellphone.”
According to Iowa Director of Motor Vehicles Mark Lowe, DOT workers and other state employees will test the new app for a period of months later this year. If all goes according to plan, Iowan driver’s may be wielding the app by 2016.
Tim Sampson is a reporter who focused on the technology, business, and politics beats. He's also an established comedy writer, with work on Comedy Central and in The Onion and ClickHole.