Digitized national identities are becoming popular around the world, with countries such as Australia, Estonia and Sierra Leone working to provide them.
These initiatives are successful only when central governments already issue traditional identification credentials, however, something that is notably lacking in the U.S.
Driver’s licenses are the de facto identity document for many U.S. citizens, and they can be used for everything from entering bars to proving one’s identity to law enforcement. More than a dozen states are taking steps to digitize these licenses and thus enable enhanced privacy, security and other benefits, but several questions regarding their implementation and use have made some states reluctant to follow suit.
DDLs’ Extensive Benefits
Digital driver’s licenses (DDLs) offer various advantages, including improved security. Traditional plastic cards are easier to steal or misplace, and whoever takes or finds them gains unfettered access to personal information. Digital licenses are protected by the same security systems that keep users’ smartphones secure, however, such as fingerprint or facial recognition biometrics.
Improved privacy is also a key draw. Even individuals with legitimate reasons to examine physical IDs — such as a doorman at a bar — do not need to see all of the personal details they typically display. Some DDL programs can limit the information shown to only what is necessary for verification purposes.
DDLs can also allow license information to be updated much more quickly and even in real time. Individuals who change their addresses or appearances can modify the information remotely rather than filing paperwork at an office to update or replace their credentials.
Most Americans seem cognizant of these benefits, too. A 2017 survey found that 80 percent of drivers were in favor of DDLs, revealing that their lack of widespread implementation largely arises from complicated legal issues.
Legal Issues Regarding Law Enforcement
One of DDLs’ most pressing challenges involves their use during interactions with U.S. law enforcement officials, particularly as it relates to Fourth Amendment rights against unlawful search and seizure.
A driver who is pulled over for a traffic violation and has a traditional plastic card has little to fear in this regard, as the officer can access only the information it contains. Letting the authorities handle a mobile device could open a can of worms, however. An officer examining a smartphone to verify a user’s credentials could witness an incriminating text message unrelated to the traffic stop, for example.
States are dealing with this challenge in various ways. Colorado requires travelers to carry physical ID cards as well as their mobile licenses, for example, and law enforcement officials can accept only the physical cards without probable cause.
Police departments could sidestep this issue by adopting digital identity technology so that drivers can electronically submit their licenses. This could work in the other direction, too, with officers electronically providing their badges to drivers they stop.
Resolving these legal questions could encourage additional states to consider rolling out DDLs. Many have already decided that providing digital credentials is worthwhile.
DDLs in Action
More than a dozen U.S. states are currently developing, implementing or passing legislation to adopt DDLs. Wyoming is the most recent state to head in this direction, as its House of Representatives passed a bill last month that would enable the creation of a DDL if signed into law. Colorado and Louisiana meanwhile have the most established implementation. The former’s program was implemented last October and has been downloaded more than 30,000 times, while the latter launched its solution in 2018. Louisiana’s initiative has experienced hiccups, however: Private businesses are currently not required to accept DDLs, resulting in frustration for many residents who have been turned away when attempting to enter bars or purchase alcohol at convenience stores.
States looking to implement DDLs can also gain inspiration from programs abroad. The Australian state of New South Wales recently saw its program hit 1 million downloads. The effort’s development was initially plagued with issues, including stability problems that led to a delay in its rollout and a tendency to crash under high server loads. These issues have largely been resolved, however, and its current version is more popular than the New South Wales government anticipated: 19 percent of license holders use DDLs, compared to the initial estimate of 12 percent.
DDL programs that overcome teething issues have seen widespread success, which shows that states and governments should not let initial challenges deter them from rolling out innovative solutions that offer greater stability and privacy.