Monday, August 20, 2007

Ads "Clear" -- Security Line Benefits Not So Clear

Full disclosure: I used to work for a now-defunct startup which, in addition to doing cell phone check-in for airlines, did a bunch of airport parking, check-in, and security stuff.

So maybe it's just sour grapes as Clear moves into the SF Bay area. But this experience is also the reason I think Verified Identity Pass is misleading people with the barrage of advertising it has unleashed about it's Clear program.

In exchange for an in-depth background check, your biometric data, and a chunk of cash, you are promised a better, faster security lane experience at the airport. But here's what they're not telling you: the actual security protocol isn't any different for the Clear member than for anyone else. Don't believe me? Take a look at the TSA's Registered Traveler (RT) program page. Clear is a vendor implementation of RT.

TSA describes the "benefits" of RT as

  • "modified airport configuration to minimize ... wait times"
  • "enhanced customer service"
  • "discounts for services or concessions"

Nowhere in this list is being able to leave your shoes or coat on, keep your fluid container, or leave your laptop in its bag. At the time Skip evaluated RT participation, there was discussion at TSA surrounding waiving the "Additional Screening" described on this page for all RT members. Apparently, TSA decided against that change for now, and instead elected no changes to the security protocol at all for RT.

So Clear is just selling you a customer service promise. A promise that they will keep leasing and staffing more and more security lanes. Because as more people sign up for the program, the initially empty "Lexus lanes" will fill up. And the friendly banter may become as indifferent or hostile as that of the cellphone customer service rep who knows your only other choice is to unsubscribe, and who isn't paid to care whether you do.

Now, if someone wants to pay $99 just for a plausible chance of being able to move quicker through security (heck, SFO's average wait is under 7 minutes anyway), what's the harm?

The problem is fourfold:

  1. This scheme, which utterly lacks any innovation, makes it less likely that airports, airlines, and TSA will implement truly innovative solutions.
  2. Personal data privacy breaches by companies and government entities tell me I should worry about my background check and/or biometric data being lost or stolen. These promises are meant to make me feel good; they don't protect my data.
  3. If there is a for-pay security alternative, and airlines feel that their top flyers can/do pay it, they are likely to spend less on regular security lanes (yes, the airlines, not the government, sponsor the security lanes). Don't want to pay your kickback to the Clear folks? Stand in line an hour. Miss your flight? You're a cheapskate, stop whining.
  4. Yet another step enlarging the security-industrial complex, where we all pay, not to be secure, but to secure the financial success of a handful of well-connected companies.

Not surprisingly, local TV, newspaper, and radio all picked up Clear's story, and played it like a commercial for the future of air travel. Let's hope it's not.

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