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Driver's Licenses May Be On Your Phone Soon

New York State Police Traffic Stop by dwightsghost is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

What do driving and buying a six pack of beer have in common? You usually need to have your license. But what if you could use your smartphone instead? Four states are testing out digital driver's licenses, and two are right here in the Mountain West - Colorado and Wyoming.

A visit to your local Department of Motor Vehicles to renew your license isn't most people's idea of a good time. But driver's licenses might be getting a shiny makeover in Wyoming.

"I think in general we like to try to be on the cutting edge of things," said Renee Kraweic. She works for the Wyoming Department of Transportation and she's project manager for the state's digital driver's license pilot program.

They've wrapped up phase one. A group of state employees acted as guinea pigs — including Kraweic.

"I actually drove my pickup truck with my long camper behind it," she said. "So, I sat on the driver's seat and they pulled up behind me, came to the window, they were stopping me for a cracked windshield."

Kraweic wasn't really getting pulled over. This was all part of the script, and the officer was playing along, too. He asked her for her driver's license and she said she'd prefer to use the one on her smartphone. The program is set up so the driver doesn't have to give the officer their device. Instead, she explained, "The law enforcement officer handed a card that had a QR code on it."

A QR code works like a barcode, but instead of needing a scanner you simply take a photo of it with your phone.

Kraweic then described the process, "I initiated the application my smartphone, which then turned on my camera, so that I could scan that Q-R code, and then it prompted me to agree that I was providing my information to law enforcement. I agreed to that. And then it pushed the information from my credential to the trooper's vehicle."

The idea of the digital license is intended just as a backup said Wyoming Highway Patrol Captain Karl Germain. Most people have their licenses with them, but that's not always the case.

Germain said sometimes people are in a hurry, and "They had to run out of the house quick, maybe they're late for work, they're on their lunch break."

But convenience for forgetful people probably isn't why law enforcement is interested in the program. Teenagers, you might want to pay attention to this part. Germain said it could cut down on the number of fake IDs they run into.

"There's always going to be a push to make those IDs better," said Germain. "In my career, I've seen some really bad ones that you can look at it and within a moment's glance you can say this is not a state issued, or nationally issued ID. This is a phony, a fake, a fraud."

But other times, he says it's harder to tell — even for law enforcement. Germain says it would be more difficult to fake a digital version than a physical one.

Chad Marlow disagreed. He's an attorney for the ACLU and specializes in surveillance, privacy and technology issues.

"With plastic driver's license, you need to go out, you need to get a printer," he said. "A lot of times it has to have hologram technology, or the ability to print pictures on that see through plastic. You've got to invest thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars."

Marlow said it could actually be easier to create a fake digital driver's license since hackers could make a copycat program. But Marlow is skeptical—period—of the value in states moving towards a digital option.

"Digital driver's licenses really feel like a solution in search of a problem," Marlow said.

A big concern for Marlow has to do with privacy. He said unlike a plastic card that has finite real estate, something like a digital driver's license could store an unlimited amount of data - like your business address or phone numbers. He said that could make it tempting to add more and more information, and that's a problem.

"Unless you have very, very high security standards — like end to end encryption — that information is susceptible to being hacked.

These types of concerns are something that Wyoming's Department of Transportation said it will work on in phase two of the pilot program. Along with Wyoming and Colorado, Delaware and Maryland are also taking part in the project. There's no timeline yet on when or even if digital ID's will become available to all drivers. So, for the time being keep those licenses in your back pocket.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.

Maggie Mullen is Wyoming Public Radio's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau. Her work has aired on NPR, Marketplace, Science Friday, and Here and Now. She was awarded a 2019 regional Edward R. Murrow Award for her story on the Black 14.

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