Why Digital Driver’s Licenses Raise Privacy Concerns



  • ome U.S. states are making plans for digital driver’s licenses that people can download to their smartphones
  • While convenient, digitizing IDs brings security risks for users and mobility issues for police who don’t have the infrastructure to collect drivers’ data

While ditching your wallet sounds appealing, are you really ready to hand your phone over to a cop?

Though most of our personal lives are digitized these days, the wallet keeps holding on as an analog reminder that we haven’t fully transitioned yet.

That may soon change as digital driver’s licenses start rolling out. So far, a few states, including Delaware and California, are considering digital driver’s licenses. Rollouts of this new format may come as early as this year. If the trend continues, it’s possible to imagine that within five years (especially as mobile payments become more common), some of us may be leaving our wallets at home for good.

What’s in your wallet?

If you’re like most people, you don’t carry much cash in your wallet. A 2014 Bankrate survey found 40 percent of respondents carried less than $20 in cash with them and nine percent said they don’t carry cash at all. Only seven percent of respondents had more than $100 in their wallets.

It’s easy to see why. Most places now take credit cards, which provide a record of your transactions, can earn you points and save you the trouble of carrying change. Mobile payments are also a factor, albeit a small one. Although some 37.5 percent of U.S. consumers have access to mobile payments, the average spend per user will only be $721.47 per year, according to eMarketer.

Progress on IDs?

That leaves IDs, usually in the form of a driver’s license, as the primary reason for holding on to one’s wallet. But those are going digital too, although slowly.

Right now, there’s something of a race to become the first state to provide digital licenses. Iowa started testing the idea in 2015 with partner MorphoTrust. The app is currently available to hundreds of state employees, but not the general public.

To employ the app, users download it to their smartphone and then get an email with instructions and a PIN. After confirming their identities with the PIN and email address on the app, the users are instructed to take a selfie, which is matched with their driver’s license photo. If you swipe the app up, you see the front of the license. Swiping it down exposes the back.

Since these initial tests, Utah’s state government began considering the same as have Illinois and California.

Delaware seems to be aiming to be the first state to offer a digital driver’s license. Jennifer Cohan, director of the Delaware Division of Motor Vehicles, told The Wilmington News Journal in January 2015 that “we’d like to go first.” Delaware, which is also working with MorphoTrust, plans to roll out the option to the public sometime this year. Despite that stated rollout date, however, the state has not announced the plan publicly this year.

A rep for MorphoTrust told HPE Matter that neither Iowa nor Delaware has yet announced a launch date, though Iowa is planning to expand its test program.


While a digital driver’s license has great appeal, there are complications for users and law enforcement. The driver’s license contains sensitive information, including the user’s address. That means if you lose your phone or it gets hacked, then you’re giving up important data.

On a practical level, a plastic license also has one advantage for law enforcement: Police often seize a driver’s license if the driver is under the influence. It’s unclear whether that means with a digital license they can take the driver’s phone. The systems that police use in their patrol cars are also not set up to take data from a smartphone-based license.

Finally, there are privacy implications as well. As Rita Bettis, legal director for the ACLU of Iowa, told CNET, “These include the rights to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures of one's phone and its contents during traffic stops.”

Clearly, the transition is not going to happen overnight. However, since airlines have switched over to a mobile-based system, it’s reasonable to conclude that this might eventually be a reality. For some, that’s reason enough to finally ditch their wallets.

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