My friend Brad Feld recently posted a ringing endorsement for Clear, a company contracting with the TSA and individual airports to offer accelerated passage through security check lines. Essentially, for $100 a year(after a pre-screening that costs an additional $28), the Clear program employees escort participating travelers to the front of the security line. As I still find myself flying once or twice a week, I can sympathize with Brad's assessment that paying a mere $100 to skip the line maze is worth it considering the value of the aggregate time saved.
If the hundred bucks were all I was conferring to Clear in exchange for this privilege, I would not hesitate to sign up. Yet, after learning more about the program, I became concerned. You see, to qualify for Clear, a candidate needs to first provide some biographical data including a social security number, home addresses for the past five years, and a current credit card. If accepted, then this potential new customer needs to pay an in-person visit to a Clear station in which they 1) provide two forms of government-issued identification, 2) have their picture taken, 3) produce fingerprints, and then 4) submit to an iris scan.
Wow. If we join, remind me what we get in return for providing all of that data? Do we get to skip the metal detectors and xray machines? Do I no longer have to take my laptop out of the bag? Hopefully, I can now bring on fluids of normal size?
Nope. A Clear membership just entitles you to move to the front of the herd that is waiting to be moved through the futile theater that is our current security screening program. All Clear participants are still required be screened as thoroughly as any other passenger. Clear solely moves you to the head of the line.
So, why could Clear and, presumably, TSA want all of this background information? What bearing could any of this history or biometric data possibly have on whether I am fit to stand at the front of the line for the security check?
Reading the fine print of Clear's privacy policies, I learned that the social security number is not actually required and the credit card is just used for their billing purposes and neither are shared with TSA. I particularly enjoy what great lengths to which they go to explain how they protect such information when, in the next section, they discuss the process by which they ship everything else directly to TSA to let the sanctioned invasion begin:
"The TSA makes the necessary security threat assessment that will determine if the applicant is cleared for membership in the program. TSA makes this Threat Assessment using a variety of terrorist threat-related databases. TSA does not transmit to Clear or to the airport any information about the applicant or any reasons for its decisions. [Clear's emphasis] TSA tells us only that the applicant, having gone through the TSA threat assessment process, has received either an "Approved Security Threat Assessment" or has received a "Not Approved Security Threat Assessment."
Thus, if I am determined to be a national security threat, the way I am dealt with is by denying me a Clear card and thereby forcing me to spend more time in line? Not so fast. It seems I would first get a chance to appeal the unbearable consequences of being forced to wait in line:
"The TSA's policy is that it will establish an adjudication process for those who are denied enrollment and wish to question that decision. However, the nature and effectiveness of that process is beyond Clear's control."
I do have to hand it to Clear in that last sentence. They certainly seem to illustrate a solid understanding of the agency and political administration with whom they are dealing.
All told, I just don't see the risk/reward playing out in favor of joining Clear. Though I am certain there is already some dissident file on me within the government bowels, I am not exactly racing to ensure its completeness by paying for the privilege of voluntarily populating their databases with my biometric data. Instead, I would much rather the government stick to its time-tested techniques of otherwise taking it all by deceptive means or forcibly compelling its production.
In the meantime, I will tip my hat to Clear's founder, Stephen Brill, the founder of that venerable American institution CourtTV, and the 85,000 brave, patriotic souls who have elected to participate in this noble program because, as we know, if we wait in line, we have let the terrorists win.