Iowa could become the first U.S. state to make smartphone apps official stand-ins for driver’s licenses as soon as 2016. But the idea of having police officers scan a driver’s smartphone during a traffic stop has left some legal experts wondering about possible privacy and security complications.
The Iowa Department of Transportation hopes to offer drivers the choice of using either the traditional plastic card or digital licenses on their smartphones, according to The Des Moines Register. The mobile app version of the driver’s license would be usable as identification during both traffic stops and airport security screening.
Iowa is among more than 30 states that already allow drivers to show electronic proof of insurance on their smartphones. Many airport travelers have also become used to airline e-tickets that contain scannable barcodes displayed on their smartphone screens.
The Iowa Department of Transportation has said it envisions the smartphone never leaving the owner’s hand during the scanning process. A spokesperson told the New York Times that a privacy feature might also block users from looking at other information while the digital license app is open on a smartphone.
Still, both legal experts and police officers have begun raising concerns about how the digital driver’s license would work in practice. The Iowa State Patrol currently has no handheld scanners, which means police officers would have to take the smartphones back to the license scanners in their patrol cars. That idea may not appeal to drivers concerned about the privacy of data on their mobile devices, according to Sgt. Scott Bright, public information officer for the Iowa State Patrol.
“What happens if I drop your phone on the highway and a semi runs over it? Who will be liable?” said Sergeant Bright said in a New York Times interview. “What happens if your phone locks automatically? What happens if someone sends you a text message while I have the phone? I don’t want to see anyone’s text messages.”
The Iowa Department of Transportation still has time to coordinate with the Iowa State Patrol and local police departments on the digital driver’s license proposal—it doesn’t envision making the option available to the public until 2016 at the earliest. But it seems that there are still plenty of legal, technical, and logistical road bumps to overcome.
Jeremy Hsu has been working as a science and technology journalist in New York City since 2008. He has written on subjects as diverse as supercomputing and wearable electronics for IEEE Spectrum. When he’s not trying to wrap his head around the latest quantum computing news for Spectrum, he also contributes to a variety of publications such as Scientific American, Discover, Popular Science, and others. He is a graduate of New York University’s Science, Health & Environmental Reporting Program.