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Convenience and security – Inside the Victorian digital driver’s licence debate

From next month, the Victorian government is following NSW and South Australia in introducing digital driver’s licences for motorists and heavy vehicle operators. But is it the wisest move to keep the transport industry safe?

For many motorists and heavy vehicle operators around Australia, it may seem to be a straightforward and efficient scenario. When truck drivers aim to complete deliveries and journeys promptly each day on Australian roads, routine inspections and checks can be part of a process that takes longer when drivers are asked to provide their licence. Instead of having to search the cab for their wallet and licence, they can simply pull out their phone and use the ID to quickly complete the process and get back out on the road.

The impending arrival of digital driver licences (DDLs) for Victorian heavy vehicle drivers is a move that is exciting the likes of Victorian Transport Association (VTA) CEO Peter Anderson due to its simplicity for drivers.

“We’re pleased the Victorian government is introducing digital licences for heavy vehicle drivers following their successful trial in regional Victoria,” Anderson told ATN.

“The VTA has long advocated for the introduction of digital licences in Victoria to bring us into line with other jurisdictions as part of a broader community shift towards digital wallets.”

Under the new change, millions of Victorian motorists will have the option to carry their driver’s licence on their phone and use it as a valid form of ID. Throughout this month, the state government has increased consultation with organisations relying on photo identification such as bars, Victoria Police, retailers and Australia Post to ensure they’re prepared for the rollout.

From May, more than 4.5 million Victorian drivers and heavy vehicle operators will be able to download the digital licence. The announcement follows a trial in Ballarat last year where more than 15,000 Victorians accessed their digital licences via the myVicRoads and Service Victoria apps on their phones.

With the licences able to be updated in real-time to accommodate changes to licence conditions or personal information, the end goal is for the DDL program to accommodate learner and probationary drivers by 2025.

“Our digital driver licences will make it easier for Victorians when they go about their day-to-day lives – whether that’s driving around, renting a car, collecting a parcel or visiting a licenced venue,” Victorian roads and road safety minister Melissa Horne says.

While Anderson reminds drivers that they can still retain their physical licence and have the choice across different licensing classifications, the VTA is welcoming of the new licence technology. Under the new program, heavy vehicle operators are still required to carry their physical licence on them at all times when in charge of a heavy vehicle.

The National Road Transport Association (NatRoad) is also similarly positive about the shift, with CEO Warren Clark saying the association welcomes any technology that makes operating heavy vehicles easier.

“NatRoad generally supports technology that makes the freight task more efficient or safer, providing it does not add to the compliance burden or is open to misuse,” Clark told ATN.

“We welcome the fact that Victorian heavy vehicle drivers will be among the first to find the digital licence in their VicRoads or Services Victoria apps automatically.”

However, not everyone is rapt that Victoria is following the example of other Australian jurisdictions with DDLs. As an expert in digital technologies and a founding fellow of the Australasian Institute of Digital Health, Dr Scott McLachlan is very familiar with digital driver’s licences.

Following his work over the past seven years in the space, he says there are “a number of glaring issues” with governments around the world pushing citizens to use digital IDs.

“Every time a government brings forth one of these ‘solutions’, they do so with grand pronouncements promoting two concepts – convenience and security,” McLachlan told ATN.

“This time it’s no different. Most claims about convenience have been dissected and shown to be ridiculous, so I’m now looking into the security claims.”

McLachlan’s perspective looks at who the new DDL program will be more secure for once the program is implemented for Victorian drivers. He says the recent incidents of police across Australia gathering unwarranted information and media from people’s phones means drivers may have an understandable caginess when police want to look at their licence on their phone.

“I’ve written extensively about the fact that even police are exploiting the DDL, asking users to unlock devices and then taking the device from its owner to verify the DDL back in the police vehicle before conducting an unlawful warrantless search,” McLachlan says.

“This has even gone so far as police in one jurisdiction using forensic devices that can scan the entire contents of your smartphone in minutes during a routine traffic stop.

“When laws in some countries, such as Australia and the UK, now make it a criminal offence to refuse to give the PIN code for your phone to police so that they can unlock the service, it actually dramatically decreases your own personal security.”

The other area of security that McLachlan is querying when it comes to DDLs is the back-end system, or the state systems that host driver licence details.

As a general rule, McLachlan says app-based solutions carrying digital IDs simply “tack onto” existing IT infrastructure already being used by the state, such as VicRoads. From his perspective, this leads to two main issues: any security issues that already exist within this infrastructure remain and can be transferred to DDLs when implemented, and it allows people working on the infrastructure to potentially access IDs and create fake records in existing databases.

“In effect, all the DDL system does is add an additional potential attack surface,” he says.

“We’ve already seen examples in South Australia where more than 2,600 DDL accounts were breached by hackers in 2021, while the NSW Services’ DDL, on which significant aspects of the VicRoads’ DDL is based upon, has been shown by security experts to be ridiculously insecure.”

In McLachlan’s terms, “ridiculously insecure” systems include easily breachable four-digit PIN numbers being used to secure digital IDs, with McLachlan saying there’s been “little to no evidence” to suggest that the NSW government has addressed any of these data insecurities. This means NSW drivers have been able to edit what is displayed about them in their DDL app and allowed underage teens to procure alcohol.

Despite these security concerns, other transport experts say the benefits of an effective and safe DDL are still numerous. Professor Jago Dodson has experience in urban policy and research and finds that the digitisation of heavy vehicle licences is following the wider digitisation of the heavy vehicle industry. He says it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

“Digital registration is already normalised and vehicle telematics are widely used, so it’s unsurprising that licensing will also become digital,” Dodson told ATN.

“Key issues of the DDL in Victoria will be reliability and security of the registration system, including ensuring simple steps to verify licences with limited intrusion, while maintaining privacy.”

When it comes to addressing these privacy and security concerns, the Victorian government says that it has put time into ensuring that the DDL system will be safe for the state’s drivers to use.

“Digital licences have undergone rigorous privacy and security testing, boasting features like a dynamic hologram and a timed QR code that businesses and authorities can scan to verify authenticity and prevent fraudulent use,” the state government says.

This isn’t enough to satisfy McLachlan. He says the push for digitization of state-issued identification, such as heavy vehicle driver’s licences, need further consideration to justify the risks and costs involved.

“The shift to digital driver’s licences might seem in vogue given our current generation of young people’s proclivity for adopting smart technology, but the risks involved and any potential ulterior motives of some government and law enforcement actors should give us pause,” he says.

“Our western societies would be left completely reliant on what have consistently been poorly designed, inherently unreliable and easily exploited state-run technologies.

“DDLs are not a matter of convenience and security and are no more, and potentially a lot less, secure than their photocard counterparts.”

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