In May, I gave up my fingerprints and a scan of my irises and joined a program called Clear at the British Airways terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, thus becoming one of the first “registered travelers.” The registered-traveler program is based on a set of standards, issued by the U.S. government, that’s meant to speed “safe” passengers through airport security checks. Launched in 2005 and implemented by private contractors, it’s designed to help airports improve efficiency by separating trusted travelers from the unknown. Clear opened the first dedicated registered-traveler lane at Orlando International Airport in 2005, and four more have followed. A whole nation’s worth, of course, is planned.
Clear is operated by Verified Identity Pass, a startup company founded in 2003 by Steven Brill, a serial entrepreneur who also started the magazine American Lawyer and Court TV. Although Unisys and other companies are working on lanes of their own, Verified is the only company to have some in operation already. Access to the lanes is granted on a subscription basis, and membership in Clear’s program costs $99.95 a year. More than 45,000 people have joined so far; equipped with an identity card featuring a chip full of biometric information, the Clear subscriber often passes through security in less than a minute.
Clear maintains a full-time registration center in the BA terminal. Prominently situated on the departure level, right by the main entrance, it is a slick little nugget of design, with illuminated sky-blue cubes floating over registration and verification terminals. When I visited, there were two attendants wearing sharp Clear uniforms, which featured navy skirts and blue scarves. I filled out an application on one of the company’s laptop computers, providing many details about myself: Social Security number, driver’s-license number, passport number, height.
Then I stepped up to the verification kiosk, a machine cobbled together from off-the-shelf products, both common and specialized, including a touch-screen PC. The attendant typed in my account number, scanned my passport in a document scanner, and slid my driver’s license into a card reader. Next, I slapped my palm down on a fingerprint scanner, which took a read of all my fingerprints. A smaller scanner then read several of my fingers individually, and the finger that gave the most consistent reading on both scans–my left ring finger–was selected as my passkey to Clear travel.
I turned my attention to the iris capture system, tipping a narrow one-way mirror until I could see my eyes in it and then following the computer’s verbal instructions to step back or move closer until my eyes were at the right distance. I focused on an oval in the middle of the mirror and then relaxed my eyes until I was looking straight ahead. At that point, I saw not one but two ovals, each centered over an iris, and the camera snapped a picture of my irises. Finally, the machine took my picture with a webcam that looked just like the one I have sitting over my computer monitor at home.