Hate Long TSA Lines? Hate Them Enough to Get Your Eye Scanned Instead?

The possibilities and perils of voluntary, privately operated biometric screening


Iris scan
Maxsims / Dreamstime.com

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has few diehard fans (if any at all among readers of this column). Our federal airport security monopoly is slow, inefficient, and often handsy. You might think you would jump at any chance to cut down on your interfacing with TSA "service." But is it worth forking over an iris scan?

Customers of a private security service called "Clear" can just breeze through their red-roped entrance—calling it a "line" would be a misnomer, because there usually isn't any—to an independent identification kiosk. After the normal TSA-managed x-ray of their person and effects, they are through security in a fraction of the time.

This convenience seems very appealing. Who wouldn't want to minimize the indignity of shuffling through an absurd scene as a bit player in our dumb security theater?

I certainly did, when presented the opportunity to avoid the godawful mass funneling into what passed as the ID queue at the Orlando International Airport in the summer of 2016. We had just gotten married, and my husband and I were eager to start our luna de miel in Chile. But waiting an hour to be felt up by a TSA agent was not exactly the kind of romance we had in mind.

As we strategized over the awfulness before us, the friendly Clear representative nearby sensed our frustration and beckoned us to her empty kiosks. She explained that if we signed up for their service we could skip the line, along with the security lines at any participating domestic airport (and later, a few stadiums, too).

Clear acts as a designated verifier; just give them your basic identification information, and they will prove that you are "you" without the need to present your driver's license to a harried and distracted TSA agent. There was an annual fee (it's around $179 right now) but also a free trial period, after which we could just cancel the "membership" and move on with our lives. It all sounded great to us.

It wasn't until we were about ten pages into the signup process that the kiosk asked me for my iris scan. Excuse me?

"Just look into the camera for the scan, it will only take a second."

The Clear agent smiled at me as if asking for an eye scan was as natural as asking for my email address (which I am also loath to give out). It wasn't, but I didn't want to be rude. My inclination toward social agreeableness temporarily overcame my paranoia over digital security, so I gritted my teeth and looked straight ahead at the flashing light.

Yes, the Clear service saved us from waiting among a crowded and sweaty security line. If we used it again, it would be an even shorter process, since we would already be signed up. The kiosk would just scan our fingers and eyes to verify our identity and we'd be walking barefoot through a TSA x-ray machine in no time. But we immediately regretted having given our biometrics so loosely, agreeing as we walked to the Avianca Airlines gate that we would not have done it if we had not felt suddenly socially obligated.

Clear is a privately-run service operating under the watch of the TSA. It is similar to, but distinct from, the TSA's PreCheck program, and travelers can enroll in both if they'd like. PreCheck allows "known travelers" to wait in a shorter dedicated identification line, and frees them from taking off their shoes and such during screening. It's cheaper, and far less James Bond-esque than Clear's robo-scanning facilities. While PreCheck does require fingerprinting as part of the necessary background check, you won't be scanning your prints each time you queue up.

Let's forget the creepy factor for a minute. Why might someone opt for biometric security?

For one, biometrics are not easily spoofed. There is only one "you," and therefore only one person with the bonafide biological goods to prove it. Scanning a fingerprint or even measuring the tonality of a voice could be a surefire way to tie our abstract identity to our physical person.

Compare this to the current standard in identification validation: Government-issued IDs. Paper, photos, and identification numbers can be trivially ripped off. And they are, constantly.

This problem has become all the more pressing with the centralization of identities in large institutions. Big corporations like Home Depot, credit agencies like Equifax, healthcare servicers like Anthem, and government bodies like the Office of Management and Budget are tantalizing targets precisely because they hold such large bags of federally-relevant loot.

Not only can this information be used for now-commonplace crimes like identity theft, it can be weaponized for blackmail and espionage when combined with other sensitive datasets like the Ashley Madison user base.

Then, as I hinted at earlier, there's the simple convenience factor in favor of biometrics. Swipe a finger, enter a stadium.

As my husband and I learned, the promise of abandoning frisking lines can prove tantalizing to even the most paranoid security enthusiast. The Clear company knows this: "You see the line, or you're thinking about how stressed you were, and you enroll immediately right there," Cofounder and CEO Caryn Seidman-Becker told Fast Company. (I feel called out.) "Nobody wakes up and says, 'Gee, I gotta get some biometric security today.'?" Too right. But will this bet on our anxieties prove imprudent?

A biometric security company like Clear will only be as good as its ability to protect our precious bodily data. Maybe the firm has adequate security … for now. The cofounders are confident in their public statements—but then again, so were many of the firms that have since been hacked.

(Incidentally, the precursor to Clear—originally called Verified Identity Pass—folded in 2009 following a data breach. The revamped Clear is under new ownership and management, and presumably better security protocols.)

It's a bit of a Faustian bargain: the more popular a biometric service like Clear becomes, the more tempting a hacking target. The deck is stacked against them.

Which brings us to the fundamental flaw with biometric security: we cannot change our bodies, at least not yet. Once your biometrics are leaked, that's it—no password change, no new ID number, no chargeback can remediate the breach. A few states have passed legislation regulating biometric use, but unless you live in Illinois, you may not have any legal recourse to pursue damages in court.

So the security stakes for a centralized biometric repository are arguably higher, since there is no way to get new credentials. It's a lesson that many federal employees and contractors in the OMB database have learned the hard way.

It's one that I hope Clear customers never experience. If the company does prove to be as good as security as the venture demands, it could prove more secure than the alternative. Maybe a clumsy Clear customer would have otherwise constantly lost his wallet, and along with it (and against all advice and basic common sense) his driver's license and Social Security card. Maybe the fact that he doesn't have to carry around those IDs any more is a better security trade-off for that person.

But the risks are always there, and the fallout would be substantial.

For some people, the convenience and transfer of security risk of Clear's biometric security may be worth it. For me, it turned out to be a no-go, and I recently followed up with the company to verify that they completely deleted our biometric markers.

The TSA is a pain, but at least they let you hold onto your fingerprints. For now.

NEXT: Are You a Woman Traveling Alone? Marriott Might Be Watching You.

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  1. Sullivan obviously doesn’t travel much.

    IIRC Clear predates TSA Pre-Check. It serves a limited purpose as it just moves you to the front of the “regular” line. And it is at a limited number of airports. There is a reason no one uses it.

    For $100 (and a bit more hassle) you can get 5 years of Global Entry which gets you Pre-Check and faster entry at border crossings. And your airline credit card will likely reimburse you for that.

    1. The funniest thing about all this security Kabuki Theater is that it assumes that future terrorists will not have a clean record and do whatever it takes to have the best chance to hurt people on airplanes.

      We have already the Planes and Automobiles used in terrorism. Its time for the Trains to be used.

      Boats too. Run a transport ship, filled with explosive material, into one of the two stanchions holding up the Golden Gate Bridge. No more Golden Gate Bridge.

    2. Yeah, I have a lot of trouble justifying Clear. The wife and I used it when we flew out of Denver International alot, because their security regime is really prone to backups. But once we took the time to do Pre-Check (the hardest part is scheduling for an interview with a TSA officer), we let our Clear memberships lapse.

      The only place it is somewhat helpful is at San Jose Mineta airport. There, so many TSA PreCheck passengers exist that the line can easily be 20 minutes long, even with the speedy security line (usually because TSA refuses to open another metal detector/xray line). With clear, you not only buck that line, but if you are also PreCheck, they will walk you to the front of the PreCheck line- which then earns you a lot of dagger stares from people who will mutter about “paying for preferential treatment.”

      Nevertheless, the cost of maintaining both PreCheck and Clear isn’t worth it in my opinion. It is rare that I end up at Minneta at a really busy time, so PreCheck does the job just fine.

    3. Plus, Precheck lines are normally very short, so it’s almost as good as Clear, and you don’t have to take off your shoes, belt, etc. You can do that with Clear, but only by going into the Precheck line.

  2. Since I only fly from secret lair to secret lair directly, I don’t have to deal with TSA. However, this doesn’t sound as problematic as having your fingerprints or DNA on file.

  3. This just encourages spies to steal your eyeball.

    1. I will keep an eye out for you.

  4. Hate Them Enough to Get Your Eye Scanned Instead?

    Never gonna happen.

  5. I think I’ll just stay inside.

  6. Jesus fucking christ, the whining.

    Bitch, if you dont want your eyeball scanned, dont sign up.
    This is some first class first world bullshit bitching. “Its just soooooo inconvenient that I have to wait in line, I wanna get started on my international vacay already!”
    “Oh, there’s another option? But I have to get my eyeballs scanned? I’m too special to have to deal with lines or procedures! Waaaah!”

    1. Here’s why the surveillance state really took off.

    2. It isn’t whining, she is just pointing out the costs of moving over to biometrics. And pointing out that this is only an interesting alternative because of the artificial friction created by the TSA.

      All that said, the costs she points out are somewhat over-stated. Yeah, if someone steals your biometric data, it cannot be changed. However, it isn’t the same as your password being compromised. If your password is compromised, people can impersonate you on any site using that password. OTOH, if your biometrics data is compromised, they can only identify you in other settings (and that assumes they can somehow scan your biometrics at that place). Hollywood tropes like magic Mission Impossible iris projectors notwithstanding, part of the point of biometrics is that they are hard to impersonate. When combined with some other factor of authentication (such as a password, RSA Token or Push Authorization device) biometrics actually increase security- even in a world where that data has been stolen.

    3. To be fair, government has a history of taking barely popular intrusive actions that are “voluntary” and making them required for most people.

      IDs, facial recognition database (state driver’s license and passport pictures)….

    4. But Nardz, she was going on her luna de miel! I wish we had a way to say that in English…

    5. Waiting in line is only what they’re doing now.

      In a decade or two, after the public has gotten used to retina scans, the gov’t will change the regulations to require all air travelers undergo it.

      See “Overton window.”

      We’ve seen this sort of creeping encroachment on rights with states gradually violating 2nd Amendment rights. For instance, it used to be that “large capacity magazines” were either >15 or >10 rounds. Then New York tried to make it >7 rounds. That got pushed back, but now Oregon wants to make it >5 rounds.

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  8. Google paid for every week online work from home 8000 to 10000 dollars.i have received first month $24961 and $35274 in my last month paycheck from Google and i work 3 to 5 hours a day in my spare time easily from home. It’s really user friendly and I’m just so happy that I found out about it..go to this site for more details…

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  9. this is a long-winded way of saying, ”No fucking way.”

  10. “It’s a bit of a Faustian bargain: the more popular a biometric service like Clear becomes, the more tempting a hacking target. ”

    Yes it’s like Faust. The more popular unlimited knowledge becomes, the more tempting it will be for the devil to target people. Yes.

  11. Start working at home with Google. It’s the most-financially rewarding I’ve ever done. On tuesday I got a gorgeous BMW after having earned $8699 this last month. I actually started five months/ago and practically straight away was bringin in at least $96, per-hour. visit this site right here…….2citypays.com

  12. Life is full of choices. Make you choice and live with the results.
    Mine is to not fly again until the constitution is restored at airports.
    Inconvenient, but livable.

  13. The prostate massage is worth the wait. I’ll pass on the retina scan.

  14. I won’t voluntarily do any of that garbage now being done with ID “requirements”. Real ID? I won’t fly. I wont get the Uncle Sam approved state driver’s license either. I’ll just drive. I’m not a farm animal that needs its ear tagged. They can take a picture of my bare butt if they want though.

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