Make Way for Virtual Driver's Licenses

Iowa is considering becoming the first state to allow for a digital driver's licence. Iowa DOT

Iowa is on the path to becoming the first state to allow virtual driver's licenses.

The state announced earlier this month that it is developing a mobile app that would contain all of the personal information found on plastic licenses, including a scannable bar code. While the app conveniently eliminates the need to carry around a physical license, it doesn't come without drawbacks.

Spokesmen for the Iowa State Patrol and Des Moines Police Department told The Des Moines Register that the device police would use to scan the app's bar code is currently mounted inside the officer's car. If police procedure remains the same, app users would have to hand their phone over to police so that the officer could bring it back to their cruiser. Civil liberties advocates say this raises a slew of privacy concerns.

"It raises questions about what information the app is collecting, how the information is being secured, and what information is being exchanged at the point of use," Alan Butler, senior counsel of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a research center in Washington, told The New York Times.

While the U.S. Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that mobile searches without a warrant are unconstitutional, Butler added the possibility that officers could accidentally see personal information like text messages, calls or photographs. "Would this give police broader access to information they wouldn't normally get access to?" he asked.

The Register added questions of its own: "What if drivers wish to use the phone to record their interactions with the police officer? What if they want to make a call or send a text during the traffic stop—perhaps to a lawyer? What if the phone has a lock mechanism that would lock officers out before they are able to scan the license bar code? And what of the pitfalls inherent in storing critical data on an electronic device? What if the phone's battery is dead—or dies in the midst of the traffic stop? What if the screen is cracked in a way that makes the bar code unreadable?"

Iowa police departments are not currently equipped with hand-held scanners, but Andrea Henry, the Iowa Department of Transportation's director of strategic communications told the Times that they "don't anticipate the phone would ever leave the driver's hand." She added that though the app is currently in the development stage, it may include a privacy feature that prevents users from looking at other information while the app is open.

The Iowa Department of Transportation hopes to start internally pilot-testing the program in 2015 and roll it out publicly by 2016. Henry argues that the app would be convenient for people, giving them the option of having a plastic card, a digital version, or both. "Really, it's about giving customers a choice," she told Techcrunch. "We're in an increasingly mobile world, and there are so many things that are connected to your mobile phone."