In 2007, I embarked on an experiment, pushing the bounds of both privacy and airport security, by signing up to become a "registered traveller." Not surprisingly, it turned into more of an exercise in bureaucratic fumbling and recession economics.
The idea to be a guinea pig was hatched as I stood in yet another insanely long security line at the San Francisco International Airport and spotted workmen installing biometric scanning stations for a company called Clear. After visiting a website, paying $100, answering a lenghty questionnaire, and visiting said biometric scanners to have my irises and fingerprints recorded, I was issued a snazzy smartcard that would, theoretically, allow me to waltz past the rest of the madding crowd. Of course I still have to take off my shoes.
And then the company folded.
But just a few weeks ago, I got an email telling me that Clear is back, and moreover they're crediting me over a year of service, beginning just as soon as the reinstall their scanners at my local airport.
I wasn't particularly phased by the scrutiny that came as part of the Registered Traveller program. As a lawyer, my application to the bar required that my fingerprints be taken, so it’s not as if the government didn’t already have my prints. Similarly, having been involved in presidential campaigns during which I needed physical access to Secret Service protectees, I’ve had my background scrutinized on more than one occasion.
Before they folded, I did get to use Clear's special security lanes on several occasions and it was a relatively smooth experience. It was a little awkward in that, after the scanning, I still had to go through the same TSA security process -- it just meant that the Clear agent body blocked the rest of the security line to insert me into the queue for immediate screening. The glares from those I cut in front of are definitely withering!
In the end, my assessment of the Registered Traveler program is that for heavy travelers, the expense and the minimal additional privacy exposure might be worth the slightly speedier security experience. But the whole experience remains fairly soul-crushing, meaning that for all but the heaviest travellers, the expense and hassle of vetting will not be worth the effort.
The more practical issue for me is whether the new and improved Clear system is scalable enough to even provide the kind of Big Brother-ish surveillance and oversight of travelers that is even worth being afraid of. So far, with lost or delayed ID cards, flaky scanning pods, and a hefty fee for not a huge amount of increased speed, it all seems much more of a gimmick than a tool of oppression.
But I'll keep you posted. And I'll try not to gloat as they let me cut in front of you.