Friday, March 06, 2009

Unclear Days At Clear

Steve Brill says he is stepping down from day-to-day duties running Verified Identity Pass. Inc., whose Clear program is by far the leading provider of membership in the slow-out-of-the-gate, not-quite-sure-where-it's-heading registered traveler program. Brill founded the company.

I've tried to follow this program from the start, when it was blessed by Congress as a way to allow pre-screened so-called "trusted travelers" to get an expedited pass through airport security using a biometrically encoded I.D. card obtained after paying an annual fee and passing a routine background check against the federal terror watch and no-fly lists.

Congress said go, but the T.S.A. said not so fast. Former TSA chief Kip Hawley, while formally supporting the goal of the program, steadfastly resisted giving it a green light to offer members long-touted amenities like the ability to pass through security without removing shoes or jackets, thanks to expensive new scanning machines Brill's company developed in a partnership with G.E. and others. The machines have yet to be approved. Last year, the TSA -- signaling that it did not regard registered traveler as a security program at all -- even stopped participating in the cursory watch-list background check for applicants.

The T.S.A. even refused to accept the biometric IDs and required Clear members to produce standard photo drivers licenses or other appproved ID until Clear managed to get photos of its members on their cards along with their biometric iris scans and fingerprints. As Brill quite sensibly pointed out, the biometric card (the holder's fingerprints and irises are scanned right at the checkpoint) are proof positive of ID, and a photo is proof of very little -- but the T.S.A. stood firm. I admired Kip Hawley for the ways he improved the checkpoint experience and helped to professionalize the work force, but I never entirely understood his dislike of the biometric ID system run by private enterprise.

At airports where long security lines are a problem (and this problem has lessened considerably in the last year or so), Clear has obvious virtues in that it basically gets you a special lane that funnels you to the front of the regular security lines (where you then go through the same TSA checkpoint clearance as anyone else). Clear employees also help you put your stuff on the belt as you go through the regular TSA security line.

Clear recently announced that it has had a quarter million people pass through its lanes at several airports, including those in Washington and in San Francisco. And I know some business travelers who swear by it.

At many airports, though, I have seen Clear lanes virtually empty for long periods of time, with uniformed Clear employees standing around with nothing to do.

I have never been able to figure out the economics of Clear (membership costs $199 a year), though Brill has always insisted to me that the business was viable as it expanded. It's now in more than 20 airports.

Anyway, here is Brill's memo to his employees:

"March 2, 2009

TO: The Verified Identity Pass Team
FROM: Steve
RE: Changes in our Leadership

As some of you are aware, over the last year I have been increasingly tempted to become more active in the kinds of public service and journalism pursuits that filled my life before I started Clear.

At the same time, I began to see that the work I love the most – building an important enterprise out of a wholly new idea – was, thankfully, becoming less of a priority at Clear than the hard work of managing and maximizing a going business. Indeed, our investors -- including me -- have had to become focused on how we can hunker down to get through this excruciatingly tough economy. It’s a situation that requires intense leadership of a different sort than I am enthusiastic about offering at this stage in my life.

Accordingly, my partners and I have agreed that effective as soon as we can work out a quick but smooth transition, I will become Vice Chairman of the company and work on a part time basis providing input into strategy, public policy and our relationships with our key stakeholders. A new CEO, reporting to our board, will soon be named to provide overall supervision of all day to day operations.

Please know that I continue to be a major shareholder of the company and plan to continue to play a constructive role, though without the responsibility that I have shared with you for what has become a near-24/7 nation-wide customer service and security network.

So, I’ll be rooting for you as I now turn toward the ideas I’ve been tinkering with related to the business challenges facing quality journalism, as well as assorted writing projects (including a new book) and my teaching at Yale.

More than five years ago, I told my family that I was doing yet another start-up because I thought the idea of a voluntary credentialing industry was just too good and too important not to do. I’m proud of all that we have done to prove that. For that, I owe great thanks to each of you and to our supportive investors."


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