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Iowa's Driver's License App to be Tested in 2015

The Iowa Department of Transportation expects to have a working prototype within six months.

The smartphone is slowly replacing everything. The courts have been transitioning to e-filing systems for years as tablets take hold, a growing acceptance of digital currencies like bitcoin and payment systems like Apple Pay could encourage fewer consumers to carry cash or credit cards, and a decade-long torrent of online service adoption by municipalities across the nation all point toward a future with less paper. The Iowa Department of Transportation (DOT) is leading the paper-shunning movement with an announcement earlier this month of a driver’s license app, now under development. Officials say it has the potential to transform how citizens interact with their governments.

Within the next six months, a prototype will be produced and tested internally, said Mark Lowe, director of the Motor Vehicle Division at the Iowa DOT. The idea isn’t yet to replace the traditional driver’s license, Lowe said, but to first offer the app as an alternative to the temporary paper licenses issued before permanent licenses are mailed out, and then as a supplement to permanent licenses, and then, maybe someday, as an optional full replacement to the traditional driver’s license.
“The ultimate goal is that we get to the point where we see customers elect to use this in addition to or in lieu of the driver’s license,” he said. 
This idea is a response to the growing expectation from consumers that everything should be available digitally, Lowe said, and this app could be the bridge to many new opportunities where the government-citizen relationship is concerned. 
“I think the longer term prospect is if you can really be successful in establishing a driver’s license as an app, it really transforms the way we can interact with the customer,” Lowe said. “It really becomes instead of a thing in your pocket, it becomes a customer relationship.”
There are many potential benefits to a digital driver’s license, Lowe explained. A physical driver’s license can be stolen, but if a smartphone license is secured with biometric data, that identity is more credible, he said. Physical licenses are usually verified visually, he added, but a digital license could be required to undergo additional scrutiny, such as through an online service.
A government-verified identity could also be used as a method of verification for third parties. Integration with a service like Apple Pay isn’t in the department’s immediate plans, but it’s something they’re considering, Lowe said.
Though the digital license is not being considered as a replacement for a physical license, there are also potential cost and time savings, similar to what’s seen in other government transitions from paper to digital records, Lowe said. Changing an address on a digital license wouldn’t require waiting in line, a remake at the factory, or postage to mail it out – the change would just show up on the screen.
Showing a driver’s license to a police officer is one of the most common uses of the credential, and one of the main worries the state has heard from constituents is that if they hand their phone to an officer, he will then search the phone for other things, Lowe said. Legally, such a search would be unconstitutional, he said. Practically, the state plans to build precautions into the device that prohibit such a scenario from even being possible, he said.
“If you’re going to share with somebody, the ability will be within the app to hit a button essentially saying ‘share,’” Lowe explained. “It locks the screen to what you want to show them, it doesn’t allow messages to go through, and doesn’t allow them to go to anything else unless you unlock it.” Whether through key code or biometric scan, the DOT intends to test that feature along with all others thoroughly before an official release of the app.
Lowe said the idea came naturally because that’s just the direction technology is headed. “It came from us having mobile devices and using them the ways that everybody is using them and really thinking about the possibilities,” he said. “It’s hard to use your device and use it for mobile boarding passes and not think ‘why couldn’t I carry my license this way?’”
Colin wrote for Government Technology and Emergency Management from 2010 through most of 2016.
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