One of the documents that nearly everyone carries every day is a driver’s license. But that may be changing.

The state of Iowa plans to launch a pilot program that lets state residents download their license through an app. “First you access an app on the Internet,” describes Joyce Russell for NPR. “Next, with a PIN, you fill in the app with information from your physical driver’s license. Then your new virtual license downloads into your phone for you to present wherever you need an ID.”

The app, which will first be deployed to state employees, will be available for no additional cost to drivers, according to the Des Moines Register. To date, more than 30 states (including Iowa) already allow drivers to show proof of insurance electronically. Iowa, which has invested $20,000 in the program thus far, is also working on paperless road construction projects.

At first, the app would use a PIN for security, but later could include biometric features such as facial recognition, or iris or fingerprint scanning, officials said. Businesses and organizations using the driver’s license as an ID would be able to check the validity of the ID by rotating the full-face picture to show the driver’s profile photo, or by scanning a barcode.

As many as 20 other states, including Florida, are also looking at the technology. In addition, international standards are being developed for electronic drivers’ licenses that will make such licenses valid in other countries. Proponents note a number of advantages to this method:

  • States eventually won’t need to spend the money and build the infrastructure to create and maintain physical documents, though for the time being people will still be able to get physical driver’s licenses.
  • People may be less likely to lose or forget their phones than forget their wallets or lose a card.
  • Police officers could focus on the interaction with the driver and let apps authenticate the driver’s license.
  • The app would also mean that drivers could get messages, such as warnings about traffic or that their license was about to expire.

Critics note a fair share of potential disadvantages:

  • People can’t access the license when there are technical issues. For example, what happens if the phone dies, is stolen, the battery dies, Internet access is lost, or the phone screen cracks so the bar code can’t be scanned?
  • Iowa didn’t say on which platforms the app would be supported (sharp-eyed readers said the app in the newspaper photos appeared to be running on an iPhone); people with Blackberrys or Androids, for example, might not have access to the feature.
  • There are questions about how the app will be accessed by police. When an officer needs to check the license, will he need to take the phone back to his car and its computer? Some organizations, such as the Electronic Privacy Information Center, are concerned about handing their phones to police officers without a search warrant. Moreover, if the phone is in the hands of the officer, that means the driver won’t be able to use it to record the police interaction, call a lawyer, and so on, reports USA Today. In addition, what happens if the driver receives an incriminating text while it’s in the officer’s hands? The Wall Street Journal, however, reported that there could be a way for an officer to authenticate the driver’s license without the driver having to hand over the phone.
  • Having the license on a phone means that drivers who are stopped will be fumbling around in the car for the phone, which can make police officers nervous.
  • Anyone who has ever had to stand behind someone trying to get the QR codes for boarding passes to work may be concerned about how streamlined the process will be.
  • Businesses and government organizations that currently use the driver’s license for identification, such as stores that sell liquor and cigarettes—not to mention the TSA—may not be willing to rely on an app.
  • Some people are concerned that a government-designed app might harvest data from their phone.

We all know that electronic documents can be more secure than paper—but only if done right. This technology has potential, and it needs to be done correctly the first time to ensure that citizens aren’t turned off from the process. 

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