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Iris Scanning, Now at JFK

Registered-traveler programs have privacy implications.

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 Registered-traveler program $99.95 a year

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.

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.

“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.

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