Orlando Airport's CLEAR Program

Orlando Airport is piloting a new pre-screening program called CLEAR. The idea is that you pay $80 a year and subject yourself to a background check, and then you can use a faster security line at airports.

I've already written about this idea, back when Steven Brill first started talking about it:

My primary security concerns surrounding this system stem from what it's trying to do. In his writings and speaking, Brill is very careful to explain that these are not "trusted traveler cards." He calls them "verified identity cards." But the only purpose of his card is to divide people into two lines -- a fast line and a slow line, a "search less" line and a "search more" line, or whatever....

The reality is that the existence of the card creates a third, and very dangerous, category: bad guys with the card. Timothy McVeigh would have been able to get one of these cards. The DC sniper and the Unabomber would have been able to get this card. Any terrorist mole who hasn't done anything yet and is being saved for something big would be able to get this card. Some of the 9/11 terrorists would have been able to get this card. These are people who are deemed trustworthy by the system even though they are not.

And even worse, the system lets terrorists test the system beforehand. Imagine you're in a terrorist cell. Twelve of you apply for the card, but only four of you get it. Those four not only have a card that lets them go through the easy line at security checkpoints; they also know that they're not on any terrorist watch lists. Which four do you think will be going on the mission? By "pre-approving" trust, you're building a system that is easier to exploit.

Nothing in this program is different from what I wrote about last year. According to their website:

Your Membership will be continuously reviewed by TSA's ongoing Security Threat Assessment Process. If your security status changes, your Membership will be immediately deactivated and you will receive a notification email of your status change as well as a refund of the unused portion of your annual enrollment fee.

Think about it. For $80 a year, any potential terrorist can be automatically notified if the Department of Homeland Security is on to him. Such a deal.

Posted on August 8, 2005 at 8:03 AM • 37 Comments

Comments

AndyAugust 8, 2005 8:42 AM

Last time the federal government took care of liability -- I think there are still some pending lawsuits by the ones who didn't take any money. What about CLEAR? What is their exposure?

GrainneAugust 8, 2005 9:00 AM

Why would anyone choose to pay $80 for someone to give them a 'background check'? I'd be interested to see how invasive these checks are. Probably more so than a quick scan at the airport.

JarrodAugust 8, 2005 9:24 AM

Criminal history certainly, maybe a credit check, possibly contacting people whose names you provide for statements of character, something similar to what you might get for an administrative job with a police or sheriff station.

Bob DobolinaAugust 8, 2005 10:12 AM

"For $80 a year, any potential terrorist can be automatically notified if the Department of Homeland Security is on to him. Such a deal."

A thought - what if they didn't notify them that they were "rejected?" What if they just approved the request and posted an internal flag to stop the person when they registered at the kiosk?

Perhaps there would then be a sub-category of the "Bad guys with cards" - a "Dumb bad guys with cards that don't know they are being watched and are going to be promptly arrested at the kiosk" category.

Andre LePlumeAugust 8, 2005 10:14 AM

They should have a Super-VIP program which promises that "If you're accepted, your bags will never be searched, ever". Then, they just arrest anyone who applies.

:^)

ClayAugust 8, 2005 10:31 AM

<sarcasm>Yeah, I'm *sure* the DHS has sponsored this Orlando Airport program as a honeypot project.</sarcasm>

DavidAugust 8, 2005 11:06 AM

Under the Patriot Act, they don't even notify you when they've searched your premises. Do you really think they're going to notify a bad guy that their $80 card is no longer valid because they're a suspected terrorist?

Funny stuff since it's almost anti-security in the name of security. Bruce gave a nice example of how to hack it.

Martin BuddenAugust 8, 2005 11:24 AM

Orlando Airport? They've obviously got Mickey Mouse doing their security for them.

DonAugust 8, 2005 11:55 AM

I want to know what level of checking could possibly be done for $80 and with that speed.

I have friends cooling their heels here in the DC area waiting for their Secret clearance, a level that rarely necessitates interviews and only collects marginally more information that that pilot program. Some of the turnaround times are approaching 2 years. CLEAR will be 15 days?

It'll be a quick ChoicePoint check and I've got $2 that says beyond that it's nothing more than the felon check done for gun purchases - an existing system that can be effectively (?) used for under a week turnaround.

When is the world going to learn and accept that the most dangerous man in the world is no threat on a plane if you simply search him effectively? Instead we continue to write love-letters to the airlines and help them enforce yield management practices with no real security gain to us.

TombotAugust 8, 2005 1:09 PM

I'd pay another $80 and let them give me a polygraph on top of the background check, and then never ask for my photo ID again! Actually I'll pay a total of $360 a year, and make it so you don't search me, don't make me take off my shoes, don't make me empty my pockets, and just show up right before my plane leaves and get on with no fuss, not even a metal detector.

Wait. That's called Amtrak, isn't it? And you don't have to pay anything. Never mind.

AkakieAugust 8, 2005 1:54 PM

Amtrack? Nope (well, yes, but...). It's called regional air carriers flying small planes. I can get on a Beech 1900 carrying 19 passengers with no screening, no metal detectors, no waiting, no luggage or carry on searches, and no secured door on the cockpit. It's noisy (propellors -- remember them?) but I cut two hours off a 350 mile trip. Targets of opportunity? How about 10% of US oil supply? Or primary port of entry for the state? Or the primary north-south electrical intertie? Or the national missle defense system?

Davi OttenheimerAugust 8, 2005 1:56 PM

Here's an interesting use of irony in their marketing blurb:

http://www.flyclear.com/que_faq_about_09.html

"We have made security our top priority at every step of Clear. After all, security comes before convenience."

The paragraph then gives terrorists an idea about the benefits vs. TSA security:

"Since our Members have agreed to an extra level of screening, the government is able to dedicate additional and much needed resources to travelers that are not 'registered.'"

Really? We spend $80 and the government looks the other way...ahem, I mean saves money to spend only on the bad guys? Perhaps someone could clarify for Clear how they find these bad guys, exactly...

Jeff CarrollAugust 8, 2005 2:28 PM

A good background check costs a lot more than $80; as a result, the defense contracting labor market selects overwhelmingly in favor of employees with existing security clearances.

I'd like to take issue with one of your assumptions. There is no class of "people who are deemed trustworthy by the system even though they are not."
People who are deemed trustworthy by the system - whatever the system is - are, by definition, trustworthy. The goal of a system like this shouldn't be to replace a government intelligence capability, just to increase consumer satisfaction at airports.

I'd agree, however, that any screening program that depends on background checks and has to be self-funding is a bad idea. You could achieve the stated goal of this program - for whatever that is worth - with publicly-funded retina scanners.

peachpuffAugust 8, 2005 5:14 PM

@Jeff Carroll

"People who are deemed trustworthy by the system - whatever the system is - are, by definition, trustworthy."

I'd like to see that definition.

jkcAugust 8, 2005 5:34 PM

peachpuff:

what I meant is that we live in a society where people are presumed to be innocent - in fact, *are* innocent - until evidence is uncovered that they have done wrong. If criminal investigations fail to reveal evidence of prior wrongdoing by a McVeigh or a Kaczynski, one cannot reasonably expect airline passenger screening to identify them.

Paul OAugust 8, 2005 7:58 PM

I'd rather see them advertise it as a "fee for service": you pay $80/year, and it funds "additional" security screeners to a level that ensures faster service.

Everybody gets the same security scrutiny; some just get it faster for having paid.

Rob MayfieldAugust 8, 2005 8:00 PM

How many suicide bombers are repeat offenders ?

I know its not quite that simple, but the point has been made many times that the people responsible for actions that are commonly described as terrorism didnt hit any radars until after they went bang ...

And what of the people who dont get the nod ? will they get a refund of their 80$ ? It's not like its going to make them feel positive about the society they live in to be segregated into the 'potential terrorist' subclass.

Roy OwensAugust 8, 2005 9:56 PM

Given their location in the South, this may turn out to be an attempt to bring back Jim Crow.

GrainneAugust 9, 2005 4:59 AM

maybe they are presuming that any potential terrorist out there will want to avail of that service, so it's a round-about way of getting a list of names for a background search!

gopiAugust 9, 2005 5:50 AM

@Paul:
"Everybody gets the same security scrutiny; some just get it faster for having paid."

They already have that- it's the special line for people with First Class tickets.

DarkFireAugust 9, 2005 7:52 AM

I know this has been commented on before, but it';s worth re-itterating.

Technology is not the best solution in this instance. One could have the very best heuristic, AI, thinking, dynamic profiling nuclear powered chrome coated software package in the world, and it would still lack the investigative charectaristics of an actual human operative. The computer also lacks that all important "policeman's 6th sense" that can and has lead to some major inroads into various terrorist groups.

I must point out that this approach (throw technology at the problem & it's solved) seems to be endemic in the US. Why not spend all that development money training an extra few '000 FBI agents? A much better investment.

AdersAugust 9, 2005 8:05 AM

Well, maybe not.. the NY Times has an article today (sorry, I didn't keep the link) that claims a data mining system alerted authorities about 4 of the 9/11 terrorists. A human dismissed the alert.
Ups and downs to every approach...

As for the CLEAR program, isn't this really just authorities admitting that searching/screening everyone is a waste of time, and they'd rather put most of us through a shorter procedure?
Of course, thye can't give the impression that they are relaxing security, so they somehow try to make it look like they're actually tightening it.
A real botch job, but still...

AndyAugust 9, 2005 8:40 AM

@Aders

The NYT article (see link) seems to be fluff behind pending book publications. There are little to no details about the actual data being mined. No word on how many others were possibly flagged. (false positives)

QuercusAugust 9, 2005 9:18 AM

@ Jeff Carroll "People who are deemed trustworthy by the system - whatever the system is - are, by definition, trustworthy"

I think you're confusing trustED with trustWORTHY. Benedict Arnold was trusted by the system, but this was a mistake as he wasn't in fact trustworthy.

RampoAugust 9, 2005 10:28 AM

@Don:

"When is the world going to learn and accept that the most dangerous man in the world is no threat on a plane if you simply search him effectively?"

Don't see why one can't hijack a plane with a duty-free wine-bottle (break it, and there's a nasty close-quarters weapon). Yet glass bottles pass inspection.

Still I don't see why nail-clippers are banned on flights.

OTOH, the 11 September 2001 exploit made hijacking a dying art, since passengers are more willing to have a go and beat hijackers to a bloody death with their bare hands.

For that reason, much airline security now appears pointless. The horse has bolted, and the generals are fighting the last war.

RSaundersAugust 9, 2005 12:49 PM

@ Gopi

First class tickets aren't allowable business expenses. I'd bet $80 to CLEAR would be. It's just another way for the airport authority to get money to expand screening facilities. Since the real cost is TSA workers, and they are provided with our tax dollars, there's no down side to being in a business like CLEAR.

Ari HeikkinenAugust 9, 2005 9:32 PM

"For $80 a year, any potential terrorist can be automatically notified if the Department of Homeland Security is on to him."

That's pretty good! Bin Laden will vote Bush in no time.

DarkFireAugust 10, 2005 5:03 AM

@Rampo:

"OTOH, the 11 September 2001 exploit made hijacking a dying art, since passengers are more willing to have a go and beat hijackers to a bloody death with their bare hands.

For that reason, much airline security now appears pointless. The horse has bolted, and the generals are fighting the last war."

The first part is probably true. However, this has done nothing to discourage the terrorist who merely wishes to plant or take a bomb on an aircraft to kill everyone aboard. IMHO the only truly effective defence against this form of threat is a good quality search of every passenger, their luggage and the aircraft itself prior to take-off.

DarkFireAugust 10, 2005 5:04 AM

@Rampo:

"OTOH, the 11 September 2001 exploit made hijacking a dying art, since passengers are more willing to have a go and beat hijackers to a bloody death with their bare hands.

For that reason, much airline security now appears pointless. The horse has bolted, and the generals are fighting the last war."

The first part is probably true. However, this has done nothing to discourage the terrorist who merely wishes to plant or take a bomb on an aircraft to kill everyone aboard. IMHO the only truly effective defence against this form of threat is a good quality search of every passenger, their luggage and the aircraft itself prior to take-off.

Again, the effectiveness of a human operative is superior to a load of disparate IT systems and automated scanners. Humans can analyse and adapt to changing situations far better than a computer.

SL HoltAugust 17, 2005 9:36 PM

I am trying to find out about the new e-ray system installed at the Orlando airport. Do you have an article on this issue?

Sincerely,

aihflJanuary 10, 2006 6:17 PM

Actually to say that, "For $80 a year, any potential terrorist can be automatically notified if the Department of Homeland Security is on to him," is misleading. The cost is actually $0. If your application is rejected, it doesn't cost you anything. Zero, zip, nada. CLEAR states that you will not be allowed to appeal or re-apply, but people slip through cracks all the time.

I've been waiting for my card for several weeks now (my wife got hers in 8 days), which makes me wonder what they're taking so long to scrutinize. Equifax or ChoicePoint would have gotten this check knocked out in an hour, I'll bet.

Rick HowardJune 12, 2006 8:05 PM

Let's see...business people who travel quite a bit pay a premium ($80) to bypass long security lines to get into shorter security lines. Wow!!! Danger, danger...the terrorists are gonna pay money to see if their real names or aliases have been found out by the Feds so that they can get through shorter security lines.

Or maybe a terrorist might just be stupid enough to allow the Feds to conduct a background check into an alias(or real name if they are an idiot) that is then input into a Fed database that can be pulled whenever the Feds get information on that name through some other clandestine means.

While airport security seems pointless, it is a painful yet needed deterrent. Chances are we will never see a 9/11 type event in the U.S. involving a commercial airplane unless it's an inside job. So what's the alternative? Analysis and investigation? Give me a break how much money is that gonna cost?

Hey Bruce...stick to IT security buddy! Either that or stop beating the dead horse of airport security, it's far too easy. Try thinking outside the box in terms of security and try to contemplate the next domestic terrorist attack. Where were you when the DC sniper was going on? No one could analyze, investigate and predict that.

How about this...multiple terrorist IED's in U.S. cities set off simultaneously or even randomly. How are we gonna stop that because you know it's coming. Just look at Iraq, look at Israel. You might want to read up on how the Isrealis are dealing with it so that you can then write about it now to make yourself look like you know something about security outside of the IT world. That way when it happens you can continue to look brilliant. Near as I can tell, you're just like all the other security amubulance chasers after 9/11...you're just full of hot air. After all it pays your bills.

traveldudeJanuary 18, 2007 12:30 PM

If you have to travel every week your hungry for any sort of improvement in security traffic. If you can save 5 minutes per trip thats easy math. There are still a lot of people moving through security who dont travel much. I was just in line at the EWR airport and some dude tried to carry on 2 pounds of bling and 40 ounces of vaseline. It caused a 15 minute delay in the process. Would like to know the name of his girlfriend! Dont think you have any secrets out there! Most of your information can be obtained if someone wants to recover it! Might as well paty the $80 so others know you at least want to make the effort to improve the system! If the terror wants dudes are willing to put themselves our there I say lets go for it.

traveldudeJanuary 18, 2007 12:30 PM

If you have to travel every week your hungry for any sort of improvement in security traffic. If you can save 5 minutes per trip thats easy math. There are still a lot of people moving through security who dont travel much. I was just in line at the EWR airport and some dude tried to carry on 2 pounds of bling and 40 ounces of vaseline. It caused a 15 minute delay in the process. Would like to know the name of his girlfriend! Dont think you have any secrets out there! Most of your information can be obtained if someone wants to recover it! Might as well paty the $80 so others know you at least want to make the effort to improve the system! If the terror wants dudes are willing to put themselves our there I say lets go for it.

BluesyMay 7, 2007 11:24 AM

I have been waiting for my Clear Card since January 18th, when I completed my in-person application. I called many times to check on it because they keep saying "it only takes 2-3 weeks to get it". Finally, in April they told me that the application had two fields missing, a program error that affected many people. After correcting the problem, I am now waiting another 4 weeks for a total of 20 weeks. Another example of the not-so-finely-tuned process by the Clear people and TSA who are in charge of our nation's security. The Three Stooges could do a better job.

Scott June 6, 2008 9:21 AM

Ya, I just went through the Orlando airport, and I think it was Mickey Mouse who was checking our ID. No, wait. A mouse could have eaten my license in less time than it took him to inspect it. I have worked around airport security for several years, and I think it is a joke.

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