Anyone traveling by airplane in the U.S. over the past decade or so knows that getting through security can be an absolute nightmare. Not only does it usually require arrival at the airport hours before boarding time, but you need to ensure that you have a number of important identification documents on you at all times. This is a stressful situation for the solo traveler, but for families with children, it can be a downright impossible scenario.
To combat the long lines, a number of Trusted Traveler Programs have sprung up in recent years. These are designed to enable people who qualify to speed up their security process, usually by letting them bypass certain elements of the process while using biometrics and other saved data to verify their identity. You may be aware of those offered by the Department of Homeland Security — TSA Pre-Check, Global Entry, NEXUS and SENTRI — but non-government companies are starting to move in on this territory as well. One of these is called Clear, and during a recent trip, I decided to try it out and see whether it really saved me any time and hassle at the airport. Keep reading to learn about my experience using Clear, as well as find out the pros and cons of these types of programs and the biometrics they employ.
How do Trusted Traveler Programs work?
In general, these programs are designed to either speed up the security process for travelers seeking to board departing flights or those who have arrived on flights from other countries and need to go through U.S. board patrol and customs. The enrollment and evaluation process differs from program to program, but most require the provision of documents certifying your identity and citizenship status, biometric data (such as your fingerprints) and the payment of a fee. Government-sponsored Trusted Traveler Program memberships last for five years, and you only pay the fee once per enrollment period. They range in price from $50 to $122.25. The process to become approved can be more time-consuming and rigorous depending on which program you’re aiming to join, as these are designed to be used to streamline the security process for low-risk travelers. Once you’ve been approved, you can take advantage of the program at any airport where it’s available. For those who are frequent fliers, this can be a game changer, especially if you can qualify for more than one program and use them together.
Do they really help you save time at the airport?
I had no idea what Clear was until I was approached by an agent at the airport as I was about to get into the standard security line. She explained to me that the program used biometrics and personal information, including my social security number and U.S.-issued government ID (in my case, my driver’s license), to confirm my identity and let me bypass the identity check and go straight to the physical check. I was offered a free 30-day trial, after which I’d be charged the yearly price of $179/year. There are discounts offered to Delta SkyMiles members, as Clear has a partnership with Delta. Clear makes it easier on families to travel together by allowing any existing member to add another adult for an extra $50/year. Children under 18 can accompany a Clear member for free without enrollment. It should be noted that as of yet, Clear is only in a handful of airports across the country (as well as at least one sports stadium), so that should be something to add to your considerations — not much point in paying for something you can’t use.
To get started, I had to provide my ID as well as my boarding pass, plus enter some information, such as my home address and social security number, into the computer. I was also instructed to scan the fingerprints of the first two fingers on both hands separately, then my thumb prints together. There was an option for a retinal scan, but I opted out of that. They also took a photo of me at the kiosk. Once my data had been successfully recorded and approved, I was escorted to the designated Clear lane where I scanned my fingerprints and boarding pass. My photograph and information popped up on the terminal, and I was “cleared” and escorted by a Clear agent past all the passengers waiting in the security line to the very front where the physical screenings began.
Clear’s website points out that it is integrated with TSA Pre-Check, which works to allow passengers to move through the physical screening part of airport security without a lot of the hassles like taking off their shoes and belts. If you are TSA Pre-Check certified, you’ll be escorted to the proper area after you’ve been approved by Clear. Because I had to sign up, it took me about the same time it probably would have to get through security for my departing flight. However, my return trip was a breeze — I walked straight up to the Clear line at the security area, handed over my boarding pass to the agent who scanned it, placed my fingers on the scanner and then was escorted to the front of the security line. It took about a minute or less altogether, and my total airport security process was definitely less than 10 minutes during a relatively busy time of day at a very busy airport.
What are the risks of this type of identity verification?
Airports are tightly guarded places in this day in age, which means a company like Clear doesn’t just get to set up and operate without approval of the TSA and other agencies. That said, some people may be concerned about providing their fingerprints and/or retina scans to be used as a form of identification while traveling. It certainly does feel a little bit like something out of the plot of a science fiction movie to prove your identity by touching your fingers to a screen or having your eyes scanned. It’s also important to do some research into how your biometric data will be stored — and for how long. Clear’s FAQ on the topic states that it’s easy for members who have canceled their accounts to reinstate them, since it keeps their biometrics on file. This means that if you sign up for the trial or even purchase a membership, but decide down the road that you don’t want to keep it, you’ll probably have to make a clear request that your information be completely removed from their systems. As more companies move toward the use of biometric data for security, it’s likely that we will see criminals finding inventive ways to manipulate and take advantage of this data for their own nefarious desires.
The expansion of private companies into the world of airport security is certainly an interesting development, and as Clear is already in at least one sports stadium, it’s likely we will see more of it — and other companies like it — in the future. A change in the way people approach security in general is happening, and there’s likely to be little escape from biometric data as an identifier and security key down the road. The most important thing consumers can do to protect themselves is to stay informed, ask questions and do their own research before jumping into any new technology.
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