Opinion: How misinformed protesters hurt their own case against digital driver’s licenses
A digital driver’s license program will begin in Utah. All lawmakers wanted to do was to add privacy protections in a bill protesters ended up killing.
At one point during a passionate and emotional House committee hearing last month at the Utah Legislature, a woman tried to reassure lawmakers that she and her colleagues in the room were not crazy for opposing a bill concerning digital driver’s licenses.
“We’ve done the research, all right?” she said, as people around her, already admonished against vocal outbursts, nodded or raised their thumbs high in agreement.
Apparently, that research didn’t include actually reading the bill they were opposing.
The irony of that well-publicized hearing, in which intimidated committee members ended up voting to adjourn rather than take a stand on SB88, the bill at hand, is that the bill had nothing to do with whether the state would begin offering digital licenses to Utah drivers.
That’s already in the books. The program is set to begin in May. It’s optional. Your regular license will still be valid. But the program, which has been in a test phase for a while, is coming.
Instead, what the bill would have done was make technical adjustments to the law to ensure greater privacy measures for the program.
So, forcing the committee to scuttle the bill made the program seem less secure.
All that passion about wanting to avoid government control, all the barely controlled anger, all the quotes from founding fathers, Biblical passages and warnings about concentration camps were inadvertently put in service of less security and fewer privacy protections.
Actually, the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, would take issue with that, at least in the literal sense. He told me state law already has “the strongest” privacy protections.
“I’m really proud of Utah’s privacy and digital privacy laws,” he said. “We can embrace technological advancements and protect our privacy.”
But SB88 contained language that would have reiterated and explicitly detailed those protections for digital licenses. One section would have emphasized the program is optional, a nod to people who worry digital licenses will one day become a requirement. Another section would have prohibited the driver’s license app from communicating with any other apps, as well as from tracking your location or collecting data “from the device or the end user.”
Those protections may appear elsewhere in Utah law, but the protesters made sure they will not be a specific part of the law that sets up digital driver’s licenses.
So much for “research,” and so much for information contained in certain blogs or websites that likely served as a catalyst for folks who packed the committee hearing.
And so much for the courage of lawmakers in the face of a hostile crowd.
People worried about the relentless march of digitalization in our lives do raise some legitimate concerns. As The Washington Post recently reported, the ACLU worries the state could collect and store information about “every bar, club, casino, office lobby, bank, pharmacy, doctor’s office and airport that you visit.” Often, motor vehicle divisions have agreements to share information with police about such things.
The language protesters defeated in SB88 seems to have been specifically geared toward preventing such a thing.
Nevertheless, Chris Caras, director of the Utah Department of Public Safety Driver License Division, told me, “One of our charges is to do our best to make sure we protect identity.”
That’s something the license in your wallet already puts at risk, by the way. It’s also something put at risk by the state’s driver’s license database, which exists regardless of whether your license is digital or plastic. We all rely on the state to keep that data secure.
Your identity is, of course, also put at risk in myriad ways by the smartphones so many at the hearing were holding high to record what was happening.
Just for kicks, I signed up for a pilot version of the digital license. It is not, as some may believe, merely a copy of your regular license. First, it requires my fingerprint in order to open. No one who steals my phone could access it. By contrast, anyone who steals the license in my wallet would get all my information.
Beyond that, it gives me three options. One is to provide age verification only. The second is to provide contact information only — address, phone number and email. The third is to provide all information on my regular card, including height, weight, nationality and the type of license I possess.
If the bank wants to know my address before setting up an account, I choose that option and the app generates a QR code that provides only that information. If someone needs age verification only, I can generate a QR code that gives that, and nothing else.
In that sense, it is much more private than my regular license, which the state says I should continue to carry.
Only a few private businesses currently accept digital licenses in Utah, and only the Highway Patrol will know what to do if you flash a QR code when pulled over.
But that list will expand. Digital licenses are here. I just wish an uninformed group of protesters hadn’t kept the law from specifically making them more secure.