Do you really want your driving licence on your phone?

By Michael Spalter
March 2015
Police Check

About the author

Michael Spalter

Michael Spalter

Michael Spalter has been a networking technician for over 30 years and has been the CEO of DrayTek in the UK since the company’s formation in 1997. He has written and lectured extensively on networking topics. If you’ve an idea for a blog or a topic you’d like explored, please get in touch with us.

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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Important Note : This article is an editorial piece for entertainment and discussion purposes, the views of the author only and does not necessarily reflect the views of DrayTek Corp, agents, its staff or any associated person or company. The information is provided in good faith based on publicly available information however has not been independently verified. As such, no reliance, commercial or otherwise should be placed on the information which is provided for discussion or interest only. Any menjion of other companies or governmental departments is for illustration only and the content has not been endorsed, provided or verified by those parties, nor have they validated any intentions. The use of company/departmental names or logos is for illustration, entertainment or parody purposes and does not suggest the existance of any official apps, deployment programmes or governmental policies.


From: Pipiya

I am not downloading this app. I don't wanna get tapped

From: Doug

Simple solution turn the phone off whilst driving if your worried about your driving being monitored or better still remove the battery then it can't receive or send data.

From: Paranoid

HowieF, " If anyone has seen the television show (U.S.) called "The Wire", you have seen some of the features."

The Wire is like 100 years old... the tech is so old and the use pagers more than cellphones, and most certainly no one in the wire has a smart phone!

From: Paranoid

Oh look, it didn't take long. Uber are testing the idea ready for governments I guess:

From: David

Refuse to carry a smartphone and they'll just refuse you a driving license... once the majority have complied, the rest will be dragged along. Welcome to 1984.

From: SteveG

Okay, that's it. I'm going back to my Nokia 3200. No apps, battery lasts a week and no bluetooth or RFID. The police can still ask Vodafone for my location but they'd need a warrant, and I ain't done nothing to, er, warrant that.

From: HowieF

This has been a topic of discussion since the concept was being talked about for the state in question. There are two issues now that people need to think about. One is having government apps on your phone. The other is having a connected car.

For the first issue, we already have a government app built into every mobile phone ("smart" or not). It is called an OS. I used to work for the government and I have been on the criminal justice website for at least one carrier and the menu lists an amazing number of things that you can do to any cell phone. These include powering the phone on, listening to conversations in the area of the phone, tapping into phone conversations, etc. If anyone has seen the television show (U.S.) called "The Wire", you have seen some of the features. They don't need the special app. One way to get around this is to organize your life, especially your driving life, so that you don't need a mobile phone. Since most of us know that RFIDs can be captured at a distance of 9 feet (I heard it was up to 20'), there has been a market for cases, wallets and holders to block RFID technology. I imagine, there will be phone cases that block all radio signals coming and going on cell phones as well. Being a data security professional, I've always said that security and convenience are mutually opposite to one another. If a person is looking for convenience, there will always be a dark side that they have to put up with. The same goes for cell phones. If I have to worry about my security through a cell phone, regardless of whether this is the government or some criminal behavior, I just won't carry one. I don't REQUIRE the convenience.

As for connected cars, that is something that will be very scary. If my car connects to the internet, I want control of who my car calls, who calls my car, and what the discussion will be about. Suppose that you exceed the speed limit. I don't want my car notifying the police nor my insurance broker of my actions. Many of us, from time to time, accept a certain amount of risk and don't want an immediate punishment for doing so. If they wanted to really control us, they can make our cars cognizant of the speed limit and make the car refuse to exceed that. Let us not give them any ideas. It is bad enough the government can trace our location and path using camera systems.

To put things mildly, I don't see any benefit to having a license on my phone. You would still need to carry the real license in case you are in a foreign country or another location outside of IOWA. You are correct on your assumptions that electronic licenses would be too easy to fake. Where I live, you have to remove your license from the wallet and I'm pretty sure that police will not want to walk away from your car carrying the phone. Besides, I frequently leave the phone at home anyway.