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A bill submitted to the North Dakota Legislature calls for a digital driver's license system. At least seven states, including Iowa, have already started establishing such systems.

FARGO — A smartphone app could someday take the place of the plastic driver’s license card most adults carry in their wallets and purses. But how soon that happens may depend on where they live.

A bill under consideration in the North Dakota Legislature would establish electronic or digital driver’s licenses in the state, at a projected cost of $3.5 million.

It received a "do not pass" recommendation from the House Transportation Committee, and co-sponsor Sen. Scott Meyer, R-Grand Forks, isn’t optimistic about its chances.

At least seven states, however, have already started establishing digital driver’s licenses, and a North Dakota Department of Transportation official predicts the same will eventually happen here.

Glenn Jackson, state driver’s license director, foresees a day when foot traffic at driver’s license offices will be minimal because most of those functions will take place in the digital world.

“When you come in to get your license, you shouldn’t have to come back again until you’re 65,” Jackson said.

In Iowa, residents are expected to have the option of a digital driver’s license by early 2020.

Iowa Department of Transportation Director, Mark Lowe, said whether North Dakota approves it this year or not, the state should get ready.

“You will start to see people coming into North Dakota carrying their credentials that way and have an expectation that people will be able to interact with them that way,” Lowe said.

A spokesperson for the Minnesota Department of Public Safety said the agency is not looking into digital driver's licenses at this time.

Louisiana has a digital driver's license app, but it's not yet accepted for use in all cases. States including Colorado, Delaware, Idaho, Maryland and Wyoming, and the District of Columbia, are said to be in various phases of experimentation.

Building an 'e-identity'

Lowe said Iowa’s DOT went through a pilot phase with digital driver’s licenses three years ago, and has been consulting with other states and countries since. The project is in the development phase now, and should "go live" in eight to 10 months.

People can still carry their driver’s license card and choose how much to rely on the digital version, but the plastic cards could be phased out at some point.

Lowe said his department didn’t seek legislative approval for the project because they didn’t think it was necessary to move forward. The department would still be issuing driver’s licenses — but in a different way.

Lowe thinks of driver’s licenses as more of an identity tool than a driver-privilege one. A digital driver’s license, he said, is really a subset of a person’s broader "e-identity," or identity profile.

For example, more people use a driver’s license to prove identity and age to buy alcohol and cigarettes, gain access to bars and casinos and open bank accounts, than to show they’re good to drive, Lowe said.

An electronic driver’s license, with security features including facial recognition technology, will provide stronger proof of identity than a plastic card does.

“We can really bind your identity to you, in a way that you can share,” Lowe said.

Privacy concerns

Some critics have privacy concerns over digital driver’s licenses.

For example, when a driver is pulled over by law enforcement currently, they hand over their driver’s license card. With a digital license, would they have to give their phone to the officer?

“No, that never happens … You always have it,” Jackson said.

In one method being developed, an officer would be able to "ping" your vehicle, and you’d receive a notification on your phone from the officer, requesting driver pertinent data only, he said.

In another method, the officer shows the driver a QR code, or type of barcode, that the driver scans to authorize transmission of the driver's data.

While law enforcement would have access to more personal information, such as driver’s license number, address and gender, the bouncer at the bar or the liquor store cashier would only see the person’s photograph and proof that they’re of age.

Sen. Meyer said it’s all about using technology for efficiency and convenience.

When he went to buy groceries during a recent blizzard, he said he panicked at realizing he’d forgotten his wallet. Then he remembered he could pay through an app in his phone.

“It’s the same idea,” Meyer said, “just another way for people to have information.”

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