Digital licences: early adopters bank on obsolescence

By Stephen Easton

Wednesday January 13, 2016

4-inch-iPhone-5-Screenshot-2Digital copies of cards like licences and proof-of-age cards for display on a mobile device are emerging, but their value will only be realised when most users decide to ditch the plastic versions for good.

The South Australian government is following New South Wales in moving towards online versions of the various plastic cards it issues, starting with “digital licences for tradies” which are being investigated by the Office for Consumer and Business Services, according to Public Sector Minister Susan Close.

NSW will issue digital versions of responsible service of alcohol, responsible conduct of gambling, and recreational fishing licences later this year. Another five common licences out of the 769 issued in NSW are expected to roll out next year, and the driver’s licence in 2018.

One of the chief reasons for digital cards cited by authorities in both states is reducing the cost of producing them in plastic, which of course involves face-to-face service delivery, photographs, computer systems and physical materials.

The NSW government claims tens of millions of dollars will eventually be saved through the switch, but this won’t affect the budget until enough residents decide they don’t need to keep their plastic cards as well.

“… eliminate the frustration of replacing lost or stolen cards — as well as reducing wallet clutter.”

The intiative, however, involves $5 million in operational costs and about $23 million in capital expenditure.

NSW Minister for Finance and Services Dominic Perrottet enthuses that “the days of multiple plastic cards clogging up precious wallet-space are numbered” and Close said establishing the technology would “eliminate the frustration of replacing lost or stolen cards — as well as reducing wallet clutter”.

But that day is surely a little further off than the ministerial announcements imply. Before anybody decides they can get by with only a digital version of their driver’s licence, they need to be certain it will be accepted in all the same situations as the plastic ones. And that’s a lot of situations.

Realistically, there will be a transitional period where lots of people take up the new technology but retain their plastic card. How long it will take before significant numbers decide they only need the digital version depends in part on when they are accepted everywhere interstate, and for many people, overseas.

Last September, Service NSW chief executive Glenn King admitted as much at a business event, as reported in The Australian:

“… while we want to enable this from a technology perspective in NSW, in terms of both having it on the device (and) also the checking device, the Victorian police may not.”

King said it was simpler to digitise some licences than others and conceded “it may be too difficult to do” in some cases.

And of course, licences and their secondary use as photographic identification are not just for police and government authorities to look at. The SA minister says the pilot scheme “would allow consumers to perform live checks on their mobile devices” to verify tradespeople have the right ticket. She adds:

“Security of such a scheme will be particularly important, so we’ll be looking to see what forms of identification can be safely and securely stored online, when establishing which cards will be part of this pilot project.”

For the technology to stand a chance of truly replacing plastic cards as an opt-in system, the public must see no personal disadvantages to making the switch.

Service NSW has already indicated a flat battery will be a valid excuse for not producing a licence, for example, and based on the United States experience, the pilot apps must be carefully designed so consumers feel comfortable handing their mobile device over every time they just want to show their licence.

Perrottet explained last year the digital version is more than just a picture of a licence:

“This technology will allow our citizens to display, apply, update and renew their licences using their smartphone, with real time information also available.

“The Digital Licence will also have security safeguards built in, with authorities able to more easily verify the validity of these licences.”

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