Security: Airport: November 2008 Archives


November 24, 2008

If you fly much, you've probably heard of Clear, those kiosks near airport security which let you zip through security faster. The way that Clear works is that you sign up, give them some biographical data and biometrics, and of course pay them a bunch of money. They do some kind of background check (unclear how much they actually do) and then issue you a "Clear card", a smart card with your biometrics on it. Then when you go to the airport you present your card, they verify your biometrics, and if everything checks out you get to bypass the security line and go right through the x-ray and magnetometer. As far as I can tell, then, you're just paying $199/year to go to the front of the security line.

The natural question is: if you're just paying to cut in line but you go through the same security screening, what's the purpose of the background check and the biometrics? One could argue, I suppose, that once you know that people were OK, you could give them lighter security screening, but as far as I know that's not what happens: TSA only has two security modes: normal and aggressive (SSSS), but it's fairly easy to avoid aggressive mode with a boarding pass printer, so it's not like you need any system this heavyweight to securely exempt people from random selection. The cynical might argue that the purpose is to protect Clear's ability to extract money from you by preventing you from giving your card to someone else. On the other hand, you don't really need a thumbprint, let alone an irisprint, to stop that. A photo would be plenty. And of course the background check is totally unnecessary.

I suspect that the real reason here is that Clear was originally conceived as a bypass system where you would be able to get lighter (or perhaps no) screening, and in that context the background check made sense. That didn't work out, but the initial security theatre stuck around. After all, how would you explain that it was somehow no longer needed?