Blog: Do you really want your driving licence on your phone?
24th March 2015
Blog: Do you really want your driving licence on your phone?
The US state of Iowa is the latest to introduce electronic (app-based) driving licences (or 'drivers licenses'). In the USA, drivers are required to always carry their licence and insurance and provide it to a police officer who may stop them.
The convenience of app-based ID documents
Phone/app-based licences could be really convenient; we take our phones everywhere but don't necessarily remember to take our licence cards. In many countries licences are used for general identification, e.g. to purchase alcohol. Electronic licences can be easily updated with address changes, or revoked remotely if you have been banned from driving. If you lose your phone, your new phone will inherit your licence automatically.
Your phone is more than a phone
As well as being able to store and display you licence, a smart phone is also a very sophisticated environmental monitor. It continuously monitors you location, speed, direction of travel, orientation, acceleration and various other factors. That enables so many useful and fun functions of your phone.
Various of that data is available to the OS and logged continuously, as well as shared with the OS providers (Google, Apple etc.) unless you opt-out, but that limits access to features (such as Google maps, for example). Many apps will simply refuse to install unless you agree to their 'permissions' and many people blithely accept app permissions in their eagerness to get on and use whatever benefits the apps are promising to deliver.
As well as movement and environmental factors, your phone knows who you call, when calls were in progress and when texts were sent or read. Much of that data is also available any app which requires it in its permissions, and you can't opt out of app permissions - you must accept them to install an app. Apps can also access any other data on your phone, including camera, microphone, email, text and so on - often with benign sounding explanations of why they need to.
Showing where you were or what you were doing can also be useful to law enforcement, so by allowing government to install an app onto your phone they now have at-will access to data and the ability to monitor (remotely by stealth) such data. The screenshot to the right shows the extreme potential for that - the phone automatically detecting infractions, doing the police's work for them, including using the phone when driving, speeding, visiting suspicious areas - these are just the top of the iceberg.
To put it simply, allowing government to install an app onto your phone is a big step. Thereafter, allowing app updates which change or add features might be small steps, but they add up. In time, your phone could automatically detect you speeding and notify the nearest law enforcement officer to come and pick you up. The admin mode on the app will then also show them a handy list of other recent violations; assuming the app hasn't already uploaded the violations to the police server which has issued an immediate fine already. Absolute law enforcement.
If you're not familiar with the movie Demolition Man, it introduced the concept of a law called the "Verbal Morality Statute" which basically outlawed swearing (cursing). It was the ongoing joke throughout the film. Sensors were everywhere and any time a swear was uttered, you were fined automatically on the spot (oddly, on paper - very 23rd century!). It's funny, but also prophetic - do watch the clips here (warning, contains strong language, obviously).
It may be that governments may seek to reassure us that such big-brother shenanigans are far from their intentions, but not all governments around the world are equally benign, and today's government isn't tomorrow's. Once we permit government apps on our smart devices, there's no going back. It could be that in a sudden emergency powers are raised to make usage or increased permissions mandatory, powers which then never get relaxed once that immediate crisis has diminished.
Slippery slopes aside, there are some practical issues about the licence being on your phone: What if you want to use your phone whilst it's in the policeman's possession? What if you do not want to hand a policeman your unlocked phone and implicitly consent to him accessing it? How easy would it be to use fake apps to get served alcohol in a bar? What happens when your phone is out of coverage and the app can't validate itself with the government server?
Even if you don't have the app, connected cars, or your cellphone itself are still always logging your location and speed. The manufacturer might tell you it helps product development to send car data to them weekly, but it also enables them to build customer profiles or tell when you're getting oil changes from an unapproved garage, and all of their data can be requested by governments.
If you're not a driver, don't think you're safe from this - national ID card apps might do the same thing so, for example, if you're claiming unemployment benefit but the government tracks you at the casino every night, expect a knock at the door!
Moving away from the technology and onto the socio-policitical aspects, some groups claim that our freedoms be eroded and we're allowing big brother to ratchet up his monitoring and control of our every move. You might trust the European or American governments, but others?
Not being overly monitored and invasively policed is part of freedom, but of course there has to be a balance. There's no such thing as '100% security' or 'no crime' so 100% monitoring cannot be justified. Where we draw the line is the debate.
Perhaps many or even most people want to be able to occasionally safely exceed the speed limit a little, momentarily move into a bus lane or stop their car on a no stopping area and feel they might get away with it occasionally. This becomes a political issue. we're really just interested in the technology right now.
n.b. as an off-topic 'Travel Tip' : Whereas in the UK it is often considered courteous to get out of the vehicle to interact with a police officer, in the USA, you should remain in your vehicle. If you get out, a police officer may assume that you have hostile intentions, become pre-emptively defensive and will draw their firearm. British readers will respond to this statement with "Really?" and Americans will say "Well, duh, of course!". Vive la difference! Of course, British policemen don't carry guns either.
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- First Published: 13/01/2015
- Last Updated: 06/04/2015
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