I was almost a registered traveler. As I write, my information has been sent to the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which will make a decision on my suitability for speedy travel by checking my information against a database of terrorists and investigating my criminal history. If I’m cleared, in two weeks to a month I will find in my mailbox a translucent card with a chip embedded in it, containing all that I relinquished.
Initially, the card will be valid only at five airports, but if all goes according to Clear’s plan, it will one day whisk me through security gates not just at many other U.S. airports but at train stations, stadiums, office and government buildings, and anywhere else security might ever be an issue. It would be, at that scale, the private equivalent of a national identity card, and “optional” in the same way that a telephone number or a driver’s license is now optional. The Clear card is compliant with federal standards for the registered-traveler program, so it will work in the lanes of competing contractors, wherever they may be.
A Way to Keep Your Shoes On
Although the TSA does not mandate separate security technology for registered-traveler programs, Clear has developed its own checkpoint scanning system, which is more advanced than those found in airports’ public lanes. It’s likely to give the company a commercial foothold should it begin offering primary security services in venues other than airports. Parts of the system are already in use or pending approval at several locations; together, they should allow a given traveler to pass through security without having to remove her shoes or jacket or take her laptop out of its bag.
The centerpiece of the system is the SRT kiosk, a machine developed by GE Security that costs around $150,000. To use it, you take a few steps up onto a platform, insert your biometric card, and confirm your identity with a fingerprint or iris scan. Then, if the machine is approved in its current configuration, you’ll be checked for explosives.
Shoes will be scanned for explosives using quadrupole resonance. This technique has been around for some time; it was used in Vietnam to look for land mines, and it is a cousin of magnetic resonance imaging. It uses radio waves to excite the molecules in the shoes. When the molecules calm down, they release the extra energy as radiation. Some frequencies of radiation indicate explosives; others indicate normal shoe materials. The system is currently approved for use in Orlando and is expected to be approved at the other airports soon.
Also pending approval from the TSA is a process in which the traveler will place a finger on a trace explosive detector, a pad designed as an alternative to the walk-through arches under which travelers stand while puffs of air dislodge any detectable traces of explosives adhering to their bodies or clothes. Though it may seem unlikely that a finger scan could replace the examination of a person’s entire body, GE believes that the particles in explosives are “sticky” enough for a fingertip to provide an adequate sample. GE is also working on separate scanners using computed tomography, which will generate images of laptops left resting in their bags.