“Enough is enough,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., ranking member of the House Committee on Homeland Security, at a hearing in December.
“As carried out by the private sector, the Registered Traveler program has,” Thompson argued, “allowed some passengers to enter security checkpoints using fraudulent identities. In at least one known instance, the Registered Traveler program allowed a passenger to enroll in its program using a fake ID.”
The “Registered Traveler program” essentially means CLEAR, the for-profit line-cutting company with services currently available at 56 airports.
The company has been under fire lately for how it does things. Here are the issues and how CLEAR is responding.
At a Transportation and Maritime Security Subcommittee hearing in December, House members called out CLEAR for “vulnerabilities”— including, as reported by Bloomberg, nearly 49,000 travelers discovered by the Transportation Security Administration to have been enrolled in CLEAR despite being flagged by the company’s facial-recognition software as not matching their IDs.
More alarming still were reports of a 2022 incident involving a passenger allowed to breeze past CLEAR kiosks despite the passenger carrying ammunition and traveling under a false identity (fortunately, the man was stopped by TSA agents).
Bloomberg’s report on CLEAR’s security issues further claimed that the company’s facial-recognition system sometimes registered members based on photos showing only chins, shoulders, or the tops of heads.
These security concerns have prompted government leaders to move toward requiring CLEAR members to show physical IDs at TSA checkpoints rather than relying on CLEAR’s biometric system.
According to Bloomberg, CLEAR reps asserted that a new ID requirement would cause “airport chaos.”
As for the travelers enrolled in CLEAR despite facial-recognition discrepancies, “CLEAR has defended the enrollments,” per Bloomberg, “by pointing out that all of the people with questionable facial recognition were also manually verified by at least two CLEAR employees.” (Company officials later decided that all problematic cases would need to be revalidated.)
In a statement released in response to the media coverage, CLEAR acknowledged a “July 2022 incident that was the result of a single human error,” but countered that the matter had “nothing to do with our technology.”
As for the claim of customers enrolled in the program on the basis of inadequate photos for facial recognition, the CLEAR statement asserts that the company “does not currently use face as a biometric to verify a member on the day of travel—we rely on fingerprints or iris.”
In 2024, the company is rolling out improvements to its system that will lead to what CLEAR is calling the “Lane of the Future”—supposedly a “faster, more predictable airport experience” for members, though details are limited at the moment.
To make the Lane of the Future possible, all CLEAR subscribers will need to “upgrade” for free to the “NextGen Identity+” system, which will, according to an email from Annabel Walsh, CLEAR’s communications and brand VP, rely on each member’s “passport or other form of state-issued identification, which we will validate with the issuing source of that identity document—federal or state government authorities—and match to your picture, verifying you are who you say you are.”
Based on that verification, the Lane of the Future will confirm identity via “face instead of iris and fingerprints,” the email states, “and our technology will electronically transmit the Member’s digital identity to TSA’s hardware for seamless and secure entry into physical screening.”
No further details were given.
A separate written statement sent by Walsh from CLEAR responds more broadly to security concerns by stating, in part, “Security is job one at CLEAR, and since starting operations under the Registered Traveler program over 13 years ago, we are proud to have securely verified over 150 million passengers.”
CLEAR’s marketing claims to offer “faster entry” at airports, as the company’s homepage puts it, by utilizing eye or fingerprint biometric scans at kiosks (or “pods”) that are checked against an official government-issued ID provided ahead of time by CLEAR customers and retained digitally.
Instead of TSA agents scanning IDs, CLEAR customers verify their identities at the pods, then are escorted by CLEAR “hospitality experts” up to and past the Travel Document Checker to the passenger screening area.
It’s important to note that a CLEAR membership does not automatically come with access to expedited security screenings of the sort you get with TSA PreCheck. In other words, CLEAR just lets you cut in line, not keep your shoes on.
As a senior TSA official who spoke with Frommer’s on the condition of anonymity explained, “The Registered Traveler program [i.e., CLEAR] is a passenger convenience program, not a security program.”
In recent weeks, some CLEAR customers have complained that the service has not even cleared the convenience hurdle. Long wait times—often significantly longer than those with TSA PreCheck—have been reportedly caused by technical and staffing issues at CLEAR kiosks. (A CLEAR spokesperson told Travel + Leisure that such delays can arise in busy travel periods but that the company is working to increase staffing and upgrade systems.)
CLEAR can also result in extended wait times for non-CLEAR passengers, who have to wait as a steady stream of CLEAR subscribers are placed at the front of the queue, both in the regular security screening area (where shoes and belts and laptops have to be removed) and in the expedited screening area for people enrolled in TSA PreCheck.
At Denver International Airport, for instance, approximately 11% of CLEAR customers are “diverted” in front of non-CLEAR customers, according to a senior airport official.
From the written statement provided to Frommer’s: “CLEAR performs the identity verification function at checkpoints for millions of travelers, freeing up valuable TSA resources” at “no cost to U.S. taxpayers.”
Concerns Over Public-Private Partnership
As documented at the dawn of CLEAR’s emergence at airports, the company has its roots in early-2000s concerns over airport security and long lines. Skepticism about the U.S. government’s ability to address those problems met bright-eyed optimism about tech startups, and thus CLEAR was born.
But a lot has changed in aviation security since the post-9/11 era.
In the time since the Registered Traveler program was first tested in 2005, TSA’s own processes and technical capabilities have grown to include Secure Flight, TSA PreCheck, and more advanced credential authentication technology.
It’s instructive to compare CLEAR Plus with TSA PreCheck.
One of the U.S. government’s Trusted Traveler Programs verifying “low-risk” travelers in advance, PreCheck delivers an unambiguous security benefit, since participants undergo a background check to be eligible—submitting fingerprints, official documents, and a photo capture.
Once verified, TSA PreCheck travelers are granted access to a separate airport security line and a separate, genuinely speedier screening.
Enrolling in PreCheck costs $78, is good for 5 years, and costs $70 to renew.
Alternatively, CLEAR’s paid service will set you back $189 per year—and you’ll still need to enroll in TSA PreCheck to get the faster security screening.
Some critics have questioned the wisdom of inserting a “profit-seeking entity” in the airport security process in the first place.
CLEAR’s revenue-sharing model with airports could create a perverse incentive for airports to drag their feet facilitating efficiency, according to a Slate commentary by David Zipper, a senior fellow at MIT’s Mobility Initiative who specializes in the interplay of transportation, policy, and tech.
After all, Zipper argues, the more annoyed and time-crunched passengers feel, the more they’re likely to cough up the cash to get ahead of snaking lines.
The difference in paying extra for other line-cutting services, such as at theme parks, is that the federal government has no say in whether you ride a roller coaster.
But if you want to access a commercial flight, you are required by federal law to undergo a federally operated screening. Should a private company be involved in that?
From the statement sent to Frommer’s: “We respectfully disagree with those who argue that a proven public-private partnership like Registered Traveler cannot continue to deliver security and convenience for American travelers.”
What’s more: “CLEAR creates thousands of jobs across the country,” according to the statement, and “generates revenue for our airport partners. That revenue enables airports to upgrade infrastructure and provide additional services which further enhance efficiency for all travelers.”
But CLEAR critics like Rep. Thompson remain unconvinced.
“CLEAR would love to have more authority,” he said in an interview, “but that breaches the inherently governmental function that TSA was created for.”
At the December hearing, Transportation subcommittee ranking member Shri Thanedar, D-Mich., asserted that a resolution to the issues CLEAR raises “does not require any futuristic technology or creative solution. It simply requires TSA to stop outsourcing identity verification functions to a corporation seeking to make a profit.”
Dan Jakes is a Chicago-based freelance writer. His work has appeared in the Chicago Reader, Time Out, The A.V. Club, and The Takeout.