Iowa's smartphone driver's license is a big step toward all-digital wallets

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Iowa could be the first state to offer a smartphone driver’s license, with plans to launch a free app in 2015.

According to The Des Moines Register, the license will be a free option alongside a traditional license. Iowa law enforcement offers will recognize the digital license during traffic stops, and airport personnel will accept it during screenings. For security, accessing the license will require a PIN.

It’s unclear which platforms Iowa plans to support, but a photo in the Register story shows the app running on an iPhone.

Why this matters: Smartphones can already store loyalty cards and event tickets, and they’re starting to stand in for credit cards with services like Apple Pay. But even as these services proliferate, identification will remain a major hurdle in completely replacing a physical wallet. You may still want to keep a physical license around, but Iowa is taking a big step toward giving you the option to leave it at home.

Questions and concerns

While a digital license sounds like a great idea, it does raise some questions—both practical and legal. It’s unclear, for instance, whether bars and restaurants will accept the license, and it could be years before other states accept the digital license at all.

Fake IDs could also be an issue in the switch to digital, as the person checking the ID could no longer look for special watermarks or imprints to verify a license’s authenticity. A follow-up Register story says barcode scanning is a possibility, but that amounts to an added cost for businesses and government agencies.

Using a digital license also becomes problematic from a civil liberties standpoint unless proper protections are in place. Typically, officers take licenses back to their cars during a traffic stop, and if they had a phone instead, they could easily look through its contents. One solution might be to tie the license to the phone’s lock screen, but this would require working with companies like Apple and Google to enable that functionality.

For these reasons, the digital license probably won’t replace a physical one outright (just as credit cards haven’t replaced cash). But there are plenty of situations where you might want to leave your wallet at home, and it’s looking like you might be able to do so within a few years.

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