Friday, June 26, 2009

Enough About 'Clear' Already: The TSA Wanted No Parts of It

But all right, one more time at this, because so many media stories are simply wrong.

Such as those addressing concerns about personal data -- that is, the iris scans, fingerprints and whatever other background information Clear gathered from its customers. That data -- which strikes me as useless except for the basic list of names and contacts for people who were willing to pay $199 for a Clear card and thus might be willing to pay for something else -- was gathered by Clear and one of its partners in technology development, Lockheed Martin.

I just read a story today saying that this "financial and personal information collected as part of the background check process" ... "is held by Lockheed Martin Inc. and can be reclaimed by the Transportation Security Administration, according to Steve Brill, CLEAR’s founder."

I don't know if that's what Brill actually said as regards the TSA because it's that old devil paraphrase.

But the TSA cannot "reclaim" this "information" (presumably the detailed background checks and the biometrics) that it never had. As Kip Hawley explained to me on several occasions, the TSA, as part of a process forced on it by Congress, only received from Clear enough basic personal information to check a prospective member's name against the terrorist watch list. That's no different than the "background" check any one of us gets when flying -- our names are matched against the watch lists.

The TSA charged Clear a small fee for this service, which Clear added to its price. Last year, however, the TSA decided this was an unnecessary exercise that only propped up the false assumption that Clear and its two tiny competitors were offering a government-sanctioned "security" program. So Kip Hawley, then TSA director, simply bailed out on it and completely removed the TSA from an association with Clear and its registsred traveler competitors.

Whatever extensive "background" checks might have been performed were done by private enterprise, not by the government, and were performed through long-ago debunked notions of what a "registered traveler" (nee "trusted traveler") program might be.

The registered traveler program crashed for a lot of reasons, but the basic reason Clear went out of business was that the TSA managed to get checkpoint waits under reasonable control in most airports, and spending $199 a year was no longer seen as much of a value, except by those who used the few airports (Orlando, San Jose, San Francisco, and some others) were line-waits were unpredictable.

The registered-traveler program's underlying philosophy, which Brill himself was a leading proponent of, was that security in the post 9/11 era needed to be a system of risk assessment and risk management -- and not just a vast $45 billion bureaucracy that spends $6 billion a year poking through people's carry on bags looking for screw drivers and patting itself on the back publicly when it accidentally discovers a bag of cocaine (as if it were a police roadblock).

That assessment is still widely shared by security experts.

Clear's biometric cards were extremely reliable forms of ID, also. "Government-issued photo ID cards" are not. Anyone with a good printer and a motive can counterfeit a New Jersey driver's license.

Brill was right about that and other things. But it doesn't change the fact that he's out of business (and on to something else.)

Meanwhile, there is another issue of bad reporting that needs to be addressed here. Clear, at great expense, built lanes in 18 airports (in many cases multiple lanes in multiple terminals of an airport).

It was been posited that this is a boon for competitors. Clear's tiny competitors, FLO and Vigilant, had facilities in a total of three airports. Congress insisted on "interoperability" when it constructed the four-headed, three-legged camel called the registered traveler program. This means that each private operator needed to make sure that its biometric cards were accepted by and compatible with its competitors. So the relative handful of FLO and Vigilant members all had access to the Clear lanes. Clear built all the facilities (and airports and the Clear parent company are now dismantling them.)

In the last year, as the TSA bailed out of the tiny role it once had in the program, Clear began marketing itself basically as a concierge service. FLO and Vigilant did the same.

Security, it turned out, never had anything to do with it.


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