A “Clear” Case of Failure

Clear, the “trusted traveler” program that allowed customers to bypass airport security lines, has shut down.  The story is an interesting case of bureaucratic disincentives and general failure around the whole mess known as airport security.

A privately-run alternative to the TSA’s Registered Traveller program, Clear started out with what seemed like a good idea — allow frequent travelers to undergo a thorough background check to make sure they weren’t terrorists or criminals in lieu of screening them every time they went to the airport.  For someone who travels by air every week or even every day, the long-run time savings would be worth a fortune.  The TSA was all for this idea, since their goal is to prevent hijackings, not just have people take off their shoes for fun.  So Clear (originally called Verified Identity Pass) was started — and frequent travellers could pay $200 per year, have a background check performed on them, and get a nifty-looking smart card that they could use at any of a dozen major airports to skip to the front of the security screening line.

Wait a minute… skip to the front of the security screening line?  Yep, somewhere along the line some government bureaucrat changed the rules such that Clear and Registered Traveller-certified people still have to undergo the screening, they just get to go to the front of the line.  I can easily see their motivation for doing so.  Imagine being an assistant director at the TSA in charge of such a program: “So, what happens if, God forbid, someone with a Clear card blows up a plane?  What would we say to the public?  ‘Yeah, he had a bomb on him, but we didn’t search him, because he’d undergone a background check a couple years ago.  You see, he’d never blown up any aircraft before, so we had no idea this would happen.'”  It would go even worse for the TSA if said terrorist were a member of a group that the public would consider an “obvious” terrorist suspect (e.g. a Muslim of Arabic descent) and would pretty certainly end the careers of everyone involed in the program, if not end the TSA itself.

So the Clear card was changed to only allow you to skip the line, while still undergoing the full security screening.  What no one seems to have thought of, though, is… why bother with the background check?  If you still have to be screened at the airport, what’s the point of having to be investigated to get the card?  In what way does the screening line contribute to security?  Many of these same airports let members of airlines’ top-tier frequent flyer clubs skip the line, too, and they’re not required to have background checks.  Essentially, Clear and Registered Traveller simply morphed into HOT lanes — pay a fee, and you get to go faster than people who don’t pay a fee.  It’s not “trusted” status, it’s “VIP” status. A smart card with associated fingerprint and iris scans seems kind of excessive for jumping a line.

Also, Bruce Schneier brings up an interesting point — now that Clear is out of business and having all its assets transferred to creditors, what happens to all the personal data in the background checks?  Who gets that asset?

risk, society, terrorism

If you enjoyed this post, please consider to leave a comment or subscribe to the feed and get future articles delivered to your feed reader.