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Clear's Registered Traveler program-- a final word

Glaskowsky summarizes lengthy discussions with the Transportation Security Administration and Steven Brill of Verified Identity Pass about VIP's Clear Registered Traveler program and offers his conclusions on the fundamental issues involved in this contro

It's been an interesting several days since I posted "Is Clear a present danger for football fans?" and "Is Clear worth anything at all?" last week.

After that second post, Steven Brill, CEO of Verified Identity Pass, Inc. (VIP runs the Clear Registered Traveler program) contacted me to dispute my conclusions. Brill was very generous with his time in helping me to understand what Clear does and is trying to do.

That was nothing unusual; I often get followup calls from the companies behind products and services I mention here.

Clear card
The Clear card Verified Identity Pass

But shortly after the first post, I got a call from Ellen Howe in the public-affairs office of the Transportation Security Administration. Apparently, government bureaucracies can be even more responsive than private companies. (I also know a smart, effective manager in the Corporate Communications division of the Department of Homeland Security, TSA's parent agency. Assuming this isn't purely a coincidence, I hope the rest of the Federal government follows DHS's lead in hiring good people for these important positions.)

Howe was correcting a factual error in my first post, but as I explained in the second entry, correcting the error only strengthened my original argument, which Howe agreed with.

Having discussed the issue at great length with the two involved organizations, I feel I'm in a better position to explain the problems I see with the Clear program. To me, there are two essential assumptions behind Brill's vision for Clear:

1) Advance registration in a security program such as Clear can create a higher degree of confidence in the trustworthiness of an individual.

2) These "trusted passengers" can be given a different kind of real-time security screening before entry into a secured facility such as an airport terminal without compromising the overall security of the facility.

These assertions are not obviously wrong; reasonable people believe them, the concept of "trusted passengers" is written into the Aviation and Transportation Security Act (ATSA), and VIP's business model relies on them being true.

But let me come at these ideas from a different direction. It seems to me that:

1) Advance screening cannot substitute for real-time screening.

2) Providing two different paths through a security checkpoint and allowing individuals to choose which path to take can create a potentially exploitable weakness.

I think these statements are essentially inarguable, but they effectively contradict the first two.

Although Clear customers today go through exactly the same airport security screening that non-Clear travelers do, Brill told me that he's working toward the goal of providing a faster, more convenient screening procedure for his customers. For example, VIP is working with General Electric to develop those "shoe scanners" you may have seen here on CNET.

Brill says that once these shoe scanners are approved for wider use by TSA, VIP will be able to use its membership revenue to install the scanners in the special Clear lanes at participating airports, where the company already provides assistants to help its customers get through the checkpoints faster.

I asked Howe about this plan, and after consulting with TSA administrator Kip Hawley, she confirmed that when TSA approves the use of shoe scanners-- whether the GE model, or comparable systems from other companies-- it intends to use its own funds to deploy them in all of the checkpoint lanes in US airports, simply because the security and time-saving benefits of this technology will justify the expense.

Brill may still be correct that Clear will have these machines in its lanes before they are installed throughout the nation's airports. (Brill said the ATSA compels TSA to support this deployment, but Howe quoted the law to me; it says the agency "may" do so.)

It wouldn't surprise me if a private company such as VIP can move more quickly than TSA to deploy new technology. But I don't think that's a good thing.

If Clear travelers can go through a shoe scanner instead of other screening procedures, it's possible some terrorists will actually prefer to take that route through the checkpoint-- for example, if they're not carrying explosives, which are what the shoe scanners are optimized to detect.

Many would-be terrorists would have no reason not to get a Clear card, giving them the choice between the ordinary Hijacking By Bomb lane or the special Clear-only Hijacking By Knife lane.

No, I don't think that's funny either.

There are many related issues that deserve further discussion, but I'll just mention a few that I'd like other analysts to explore in more detail.

For example, VIP has a plan (already approved by TSA) to distribute a new Clear card, replacing the existing card pictured above, that will include the owner's picture and other security features. The new card will be accepted at all TSA checkpoints, even in airports without Clear lanes, as a primary ID-- no driver's license required. I'm not sure this is such a good idea either, but it's a relatively minor thing.

Brill wanted me to point out that Clear lanes move as much as 30% faster than other lanes, which improves the overall efficiency of the whole checkpoint, thus benefiting non-Clear customers. TSA's figures show that less than 1% of US air travelers on a given day are Clear customers, but Brill says that this figure can be much higher at airports with well-established Clear programs.

Howe also says that TSA has provided "Black Diamond Self Select Lanes" (you know, like "black diamond" slopes for expert skiers) at 43 airports that provide similar benefits. So both sides have good arguments on this point, but convenience is a small thing by comparison with security.

Anyway, there are many other kinds of advanced security screening technology being evaluated by TSA. In the long run, airport security will be both faster and more effective.

Regardless of the technology involved, I believe all travelers should receive the same screening, and that's TSA's policy as of today. That policy takes away much of the potential benefit of the Clear program, and that's unfortunate for Brill and VIP, but I think that's the way it has to be.

I'll just leave it at that.