India ditches physical driver's licenses, putting them on smartphones: is that a good thing?

September 7, 2016

In late 2014, the Iowa Department of Transportation announced that it was building an app that would allow motorists to store their driver's licenses on their smartphones. No one seemed especially fazed by the idea, since everything from music to movies to credit cards has been steadily migrating to our phones for years.

Since then, a few other states have made rumblings about following Iowa's lead, but India--the world's second-most populous country--has just leaped far, far ahead by offering an app that not only stores driver's licenses, but vehicle registrations, too.

The app is called DigiLocker. It's free, and it's available now for Android users.

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DigiLocker is a leading element in India's "Digital India" initiative, which aims to digitize many of the country's commonly used documents. The hope is that by creating a digital version of these certificates, the Indian government will be able to eliminate some of the hassles residents face when obtaining the documents and keeping them up to date. Anyone who's ever had to negotiate with the DMV to replace a lost driver's license can appreciate that. 

The downside--at least for privacy advocates--is that DigiLocker and other "Digital India" programs rely on Aadhaar, which are 12-digit ID numbers issued to every Indian citizen. For instance, to use DigiLocker, smartphone owners create an account using their phone number, which the government then verifies by its link to the user's Aadhaar.  

Though Aadhaar might sound similar to Social Security Numbers here in the states, they're not quite that innocuous. As the Times of India explained when Aadhaar debuted:

"The [Aadhaar] will be stored in a centralized database and linked to the basic demographics and biometric information photograph, ten fingerprints and iris of each individual [sic]. The number will be unique and would be available for online and offline verification and, hence, will rule out the possibility of duplicate and fake identities from government as well as various private databases." (emphasis ours)

So on the one hand, we love the idea of being able to store licenses and other legal documents on our phones and having authorities respect them as legitimate. 

On the other hand, biometrics sounds a little too Gattaca for some of us.

That said, don't be surprised if similar programs begin rolling out in the U.S. before long.

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