Don’t speed recklessly to create digital driver’s licenses

Privacy protections must be in place before digital IDs join a host of other post-9/11 changes that create a more complete record of where each of us is at any given moment.

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The Secretary of State Driver Services facility in Naperville.

Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Digital driver’s licenses need some rules of the road before they are placed on more smart phones.

Some states allow motorists to put electronic versions of their driver‘s licenses on their phones. Other states, including Illinois, are thinking about it. The digital IDs would come in handy for people caught in traffic stops who have their phones but absent-mindedly left their plastic driver’s licenses at home in their gym bags.

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If created properly, the digital IDs could tell a bouncer whether someone was old enough to get into a bar — without letting the bouncer get a peek at the person’s birthday. Underage people would have a harder time creating fake IDs. Many people are already comfortable with putting their airline boarding passes and theater tickets on their phones.

But as a police officer in a traffic stop might say: Not so fast.

Putting driver’s licenses onto phones presents an array of thorny problems that must be resolved.

Could a police officer ask for a driver’s license as a pretext for scrolling through texts or other personal information on someone’s device? It could happen. Phones contain all sorts of private data, including texts, restricted social media posts, emails and photos — information that people assume will remain private. Once the phone is in someone else’s hands, that data is no longer private.

Under some systems, police use a special scanner to get just the driver’s license information without grabbing the driver’s phone. But what if police officers ask a motorist to hand over a phone because their scanners aren’t working or they don’t have one?

Could digital IDs join a host of other post-9/11 changes that create a more complete record of where each of us is at any given moment?

Could scanning an electronic driver’s license create a permanent record that is captured when someone flashes a plastic license to, say, buy alcohol, enter a casino or go to a nightclub with an age requirement?

What if a state government, through one of the usual bureaucratic mix-ups, mistakenly revokes your digital ID from your phone? You might not know it until you need your license.

On Oct. 12, Mississippi Commissioner of Public Safety Sean Tindell said his state is developing a way for people to have their driver’s licenses, vaccination cards and other state-issued documents on their phones, perhaps as soon as November. Last month, Apple announced Arizona and Georgia will soon let users add driver’s licenses or state IDs to the Wallet app on their iPhones or Apple Watches. Connecticut, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Oklahoma and Utah will follow, Apple said. Arizona, Colorado, Delaware, Louisiana and Oklahoma already have driver’s license apps.

In theory, people who don’t like the idea of putting their driver’s licenses on their phones could continue to use their plastic counterparts. It’s possible, though, that businesses and others might find the electronic versions to be preferable for their own reasons. Try to display a plastic driver’s license, and you might be shunted to the slow line while others hurry through, or find you can’t use it all.

As we have seen giant tech firms build online profiles of each of us, we have to ask whether anyone is going to collect and store even more information about us when we use electronic IDs.

As the steady drumbeat of data breaches plays in the background, governments at the state and federal level should dial up their vigilance. Strong policies to prevent digital fraud and protect privacy must be in place in every state.

Any time a new system like this comes along, we should examine what the unintended consequences might be along with the benefits.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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