“Overall, Clear is not only going to be more convenient; it’s going to provide a higher level of security,” says Matthew Farr, a senior homeland security analyst with consultants Frost and Sullivan. “I think it’s all going to fundamentally change airport security.”
But every advance in security seems to demand a corresponding regression in privacy, and there are many who consider the idea of registering to travel an assault on liberty. What’s more, they object to being asked to give up all 10 fingerprints, an intrusion that few people other than suspected criminals have had to endure. Though some passports are now issued with biometric-capable chips built in, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s 2004 decision to fingerprint some foreign travelers as a matter of course sparked outrage in the U.S. and abroad. Bringing the policy closer to general implementation, even in a voluntary program, would raise even more ire. (The idea that a traveler’s movements would be recorded may not be an issue, for Clear claims that its travel records are not network accessible and are erased every 24 hours.)
Tim Sparapani, a legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union who specializes in privacy, national security, and immigration, is particularly concerned about what happens if you don’t make the list. He imagines a whole underclass of unregisterables–who if the program ever does expand to places like office buildings and subways will be impeded all the more.
By promoting the development of accurate and convenient screening technology, though, Clear’s registered-traveler program may actually increase the efficiency of security checking for all travelers. Advanced detection, as it filters down to the general public, might simultaneously speed up lines and lessen the demand for privileged lanes and registration programs themselves. (That’s an outcome that could trouble a long-term investor in Clear, but the company would lose its advantage only at the airline gate, not at any public or private venues it separately negotiated to screen. Those venues would be open to competition, in which Clear would have the advantage of having established itself as a leader in the business. And there are more office buildings and stadiums than airline gates.) Simply perfecting a machine, whose implementation does not require traveler registration, would deliver something close to a truly democratic screening method for travel.
So far, Clear has built a few things of importance, including a model for a trusted-traveler program, a useful registration center, and a security checkpoint that, though it’s a work in progress, may one day benefit all travelers, whether they carry biometric cards or not. It’s hard to cheer any program that includes a list kept by the government, but does this one herald the further and final deterioration of liberty? Not necessarily.
Bryant Urstadt has written for Harper’s and Rolling Stone.