Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Is There Any Justification Left for 'Registered Traveler'?

Congress, which so thoroughly screwed up the so-called Registered Traveler program to begin with, is now toying with the idea of dragging this dead horse back to the street.

As originally, though vaguely, conceived, Registered Traveler was to be a program in which frequent travelers would submit to a government security clearance that would enable them to be "registered" as airline passengers who were deemed more trustworthy than the average citizen who had not been cleared.

Once registered, that traveler would then be eligible for special handling at airport security. The program never quite got its act together enough to specify just how this would work as a practical matter.

Pretty soon, Congress, along with officials from Homeland Security and representatives from industries looking to make a buck off Registered Traveler came up with the bright idea to make this a public-private initiative. (The TSA, while gamely particpating, made it clear that it was not enamoured of the idea from the start).

So investors came in. By far, the major player in the game was Steve Brill's Verified Identity Pass Inc., which installed the first "expedited security" lanes under its brand name "Clear," and which ultimately built special lanes at 18 airports before the company shut down abruptly in June.

In various partnerships with technology companies, Verified Identity spent a small fortune developing high-tech equipment -- most importantly a GE-designed "shoe-scanner" that was supposed to provide members with a major benefit by allowing them to pass through security without having to remove their shoes.

Here the TSA, under its most recent director Kip Hawley, really dug in its heels. While maintaining that it supported the idea (as Congress insisted it must), the TSA kept giving failing grades to Brill's shoe scanner, saying that while the machine was promising, it didn't adequately meet security standards.

So there was no shoe scanner. Nor were any of the other promised security benefits ever delivered.

Two years ago, the TSA -- in an act of what I regarded as contempt for the private element of Registered Traveler -- even removed itself from its cursory participation in the enrollment process. Till then, the federal "security clearance" part of the operation had consisted of the TSA merely checking the names of prospective members of Clear against the standard FBI terrorist watch list. Hawley stopped this entirely, leaving Clear as a totally private operation that had spent a lot of money to build enrollment centers and intake lanes at 18 airports.

Clear -- which cost about $130 a year -- was built around the idea that members, once "cleared," were issued biometric ID cards on which a member's irises and fingerprints had been electronically embedded.

Without doubt, that ID was far superior in any security sense to the easily counterfeitable photo-IDs required by the TSA. Still, the TSA refused to accept the biometric IDs, insisting that Clear members show their government-issue photo IDs just like everyone else.

The main reason for the TSA's refusal to accept the biometric IDs was that there was an insecure physical space built into the process, as members wandered from the Clear station to the actual TSA security checkpoint. The TSA considered it out of the question to install Clear biometric readers at the checkpoints themselves.

But Hawley wasn't just being an obstructionist in his resistance to allowing Clear and similar programs started by two tiny competitors into the security apparatus. Rather, he was resisting the idea of outsourcing any element of security -- which was, after all, at the heart of Congress's Registered Traveler initiative.

While Clear struggled, meanwhile, the TSA managed to improve its own customer-service operations. All across the country, TSA security lines became manageable and much of the unpredictability was eliminated or greatly reduced. (The few airports in which security-line waits were still a big problem -- Orlando, especially -- were precisely those airports that had the highest number of Clear members.)

Ultimately, Clear was nothing more than a greatly overstaffed, limited front-of-line pass. Members entered Clear’s distinctive blue lanes with their ID cards, and were subject to a scan of their irises and fingerprints. If your eyeballs and fingerprints matched those on your card, you were cleared. But for what? Actually, the procedure did nothing more than verify the identity (and enrollment status) of the member presenting the card. There was absolutely no element of security involved in it.

Once their Clear membership checked out, members were sent on their way to the regular TSA security station where they went through the exact same procedures as everyone else.

Given that Clear had about 160,000 members (most of them with cards paid for by their companies), there was obviously some time-saving value seen in it.

About two years ago, my wife and I impetuously enrolled in Clear at the Newark airport. about two years ago. After a year, I had used my card once, and considered the Clear station an delaying irritant. She never used hers. Obviously, we didn't re-up.

There's a hearing in Congress this afternoon on the issue of reviving the Registered Traveler program.

We'll see what they come up with.

But this is a Congress that, like its predecessor ... well, never mind. Just mark me down as voting skeptical.



flybaby said...

Joe, do you really want your address and passport number up on the internet?

Your choice but identity theft on top of everything else you are going through would suck. Of course, you could argue, given all you are going through, who would want to steal your identity?!

Pete said...

Why not expand other similar programs, such as the Global Entry System (GOES) by Customs (ICE); it does the requsite background and uses facial recognition and fingerprint biometrics (along with a US Passport or Passport card) to pre-screen @ customs entry points. Takes seconds and you completely bypass the customs lines on re-entry. IF we are serious about an expedited process, and many of us would willingly pay for a reasonable program, this seems like the perfect plan to emulate or morph into a TSA accepted product (and it is ALREADY government owned). By providing lines with kiosks, improvements on the all too scarce "black diamond" lanes in existence at some airports could be expanded, and allow bypassing the adventure of the third world traveler (or debutante with thirteen trays and a yappy dog)in your line when running the security gauntlet, and still afford a reasonable level of security screening.