Clear becomes Invisible

Clear, the program run by Verified Identity Pass, Inc. to enable pre-screened air passengers to pass through an airport security “express lane”, has announced that it has ceased operations.  From the company’s Web site:

At 11:00 p.m. PST on June 22, 2009, Clear ceased operations. Clear’s parent company, Verified Identity Pass, Inc., was unable to negotiate an agreement with its senior creditor to continue operations. Verified Identity Pass regrets that Clear will not be able to continue operations.

The program worked like this.  If you wanted to spend less time in security lines, you could submit an application, with a $100 fee, on which you provided a great deal of personal information, which was used as the basis for a background check.  If you were approved, you got a special get-out-of-line card which enabled you to go through a more expedited screening process.

According to the posted announcement, the company has not filed for bankruptcy protection at this time.  Although the message on the site tries to be reassuring, because each person who registered with Clear had to provide them with a good deal of personal information and biometric identification (fingerprints and iris scans), one naturally wonders what will become of all this data.  The company says that the data can only be used for a similar traveler screening program, according to TSA rules, but some people are a little nervous, nonetheless; I would say with some justification.

Although I have no personal involvement with this program, I would not be sorry to see it, and its underlying idea, go away for good.   The problem (as Bruce Schneier wrote in an essay originally published in the New York Times back in 2007) is that the program is based on two ideas: one that’s OK, and one that’s just dangerously stupid.  The OK idea is to provide some travellers, who find it worth their while, the opportunity to pay for quicker security screening service.  Although this might offend some people’s egalitarian instincts, it is really no different than the airline offering first class service at a premium price.

The stupid idea is that there is some reliable way for a background check to identify potential bad guys, even (and especially) when the bad guys can try to game the system.  Even if we could positively verify the identity of every person who applied for a Clear pass, we don’t have a good list of who the bad guys are.  And no  one has succeeded in constructing a useful profile of the typical terrorist, for example.  If having a pass results in a less thorough screening, the correct strategy for a terrorist leader is obvious: get 20 or 30 recruits, and have them all apply for a pass.  Perhaps six (to pick a number) are approved.  Guess which six will go on the mission?    Unfortunately, it is just not the case that the bad guy’s driver’s license will have a box called “Occupation” that says “Evil-doer”.  Another way you can look at this program is that, for $100, you can find out if you are suspected of being a bad guy.

There’s nothing wrong with creating a system that has a more efficient, but just as thorough, screening offered for a premium.  But creating two ways, one high-security, the other less so, to go through the screening process is just a Real Bad Idea that will make everyone less safe.

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