Unclear Implications For New Digital Driver’s License Program

In 2020, the Mississippi legislature passed a bill that included a provision to implement a digital driver’s license program that allows citizens to keep a copy of their license on their smartphones. The program is expected to roll out soon. However, there are still some unanswered questions that could pose a threat to individual liberty if not addressed.

In the first place, there must be an understanding of how most digital license programs work. The text of the bill, HB1371, specifies that the Department of Public Safety “shall develop and implement a driver's license or driving permit in electronic format as an additional option for license or permit holders. Acceptable electronic formats include display of electronic images on a cellular phone or any other type of electronic device.”

For most of the states that have implemented a digital license, the license is stored via encryption on a government-sanctioned smartphone app. Mississippi’s program development has followed this model. When the digital license is requested by law enforcement, store clerks, or others, they can scan the smartphone to verify the license's authenticity. After authenticity has been verified via cryptography, the driver’s license information is shared with the individual requesting it.

At first glance, this concept of a digital driver’s license might seem to be a fairly straightforward advancement for the digital age. To a certain degree, this is true. There is nothing inherently wrong with implementing a digital license option in addition to the traditional plastic driver’s license. However, digital licenses bring a level of complexity that is not quite there for physical licenses, and this complexity must be properly addressed.

In the first place, it is important to consider the potential threats to individual liberty that can occur if a digital license program is poorly designed and does not have the proper protections in place for citizens. There are several essential issues to consider.

For instance, consider the circumstances where a driver’s license might be requested. Such examples might include traffic stops, certain purchases, and entrance into restricted buildings. Under traditional circumstances, the physical card would be presented, and there is no centralized reporting structure that logs when and where the license is used. However, in the context of a digital license, this could change.

If the digital license app was programmed to report to the DMV as it was used, such data could be compiled to track citizens' actions. Depending on how the app is designed, this data could include the date, time, location, and the circumstances of the digital license being presented.

Instead of having such a system, any digital license should have authentication protocols that can operate offline without reporting the license usage details to the DMV. This is essential to prevent a digital license from being a tool of systematic state government surveillance.      

In addition, there have been plans made in Mississippi to eventually expand the proposed digital driver’s license app by allowing citizens to also include additional state-issued documents such as hunting licenses, real estate licenses, and concealed carry permits. This brings in the question of how much data centralization could eventually be placed into the digital license app.

While the concept of a voluntary centralized digital wallet for government-issued licenses is one thing, there is a potential slippery slope. Already, some in the state have proposed including non-licensing information, such as Covid vaccination cards. At this time, officials have insisted that the option to include other documents in the digital wallet in addition to a standard driver’s license would be strictly voluntary. However, it is important to maintain in the future that the digital ease of adding additional information to a digital wallet should never lead to even more data being requested or digital wallets becoming mandatory.

These are complicated matters that require careful thought and analysis. Yet, despite all of these complexities, the state has had a relatively low amount of public communications on the eventual parameters for the digital license program. For something as fundamental as license identification protocols, and something as complex as mobile app technology, the state should be entirely transparent on the final procedures for development and implementation.

It is essential so that the personal liberty of Mississippians is never compromised for the sake of digital technology. The concept of license digitization comes as no surprise in an increasingly digital world. But the proper guardrails must be in place to ensure that such digitalization is never a precursor for the erosion of individual liberties.


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