Cool as McCumber: Ingenious, yet evil

The DC Beltway that runs between my residence and my office is being torn up…again. Several years ago, I suffered through years of Beltway construction projects when I lived on the Maryland side of the Potomac. Now that I live in Virginia, I have the bad luck of dealing with another major project — the installation of new toll lanes.
The new toll lanes are being built by a private company, so at least they are going in quickly. They are being built with the latest technology that will allow this entrepreneurial company to charge a variable toll based on how clogged the taxpayer-built roads are at any given time. The worse the backup, the more they can gouge you to take the faster lanes. Ingenious, yet evil.
Once the government-built and managed roadways became woefully inefficient, legislators solved the problem by allowing a private company to make a handsome profit running a more efficient system. Of course, the new toll operator kicks back a portion of the proceeds to the same legislative body that built the original roadway. We get to pay — repeatedly.
The Transportation Security Administration has performed a similar feat. After creating a passenger screening process rife with inefficiencies and delays, they passed off some of their responsibilities to a private contractor to perform quicker screening — for an extra fee paid by the traveler. This cleared traveler program was and is a laughable work-around. The contractor collected fingerprints and performed a background check for a steep “service fee” to supposedly reduce the likelihood the traveler was a card-carrying al-Qaeda member, if, in fact, al-Qaeda issues membership cards. They then issued their own membership card, so you could use a separate screening line.
Since even flag-waving, frequent-flying grandmothers from Pig Roost, Iowa, can be blackmailed into bringing banned items onto a commercial aircraft, these “cleared” travelers still had to perform the TSA-mandated screening, including the notorious shoe removal and scan. In other words, the traveler would pay extra to get a slightly less congested line after already paying through the nose for the original security “fix” foisted on us by Congress. Ingenious, yet evil.
At the time of this writing, the company running the cleared traveler program has decided to shut down. The articles I have read list plenty of reasons for the decision, but the only one that makes any sense is they simply didn’t make enough profit. The program only supported a handful of larger airport hubs, and travelers soon realized it was simply an extra tax disguised as a “fee” to avoid the inefficient, government-run program already in place.
The cleared traveler program contractor was Verified Identity Pass. Great name, isn’t it? It sounds just like a government program. To make it more confusing, Verified Identity Pass was the largest operator under Registered Traveler in a program known as Clear. Under the Clear program, enrolled travelers provided personal information and went through a background check so that they could receive expedited treatment at security lanes at airports.
Verified Identity Pass shut down the Clear program abruptly on June 22. I still don’t know which of the three “programs” (VIP, Registered Traveler, and Clear) belonged to TSA, and which one(s) are contractor-operated. I’ll wager the people who handed over their personal data, fingerprints and a wad of cash assumed the data was going to be protected and managed by the U.S. government. There were approximately 260,000 paid subscribers.
Currently, TSA is assuming the role of Pontius Pilate in this mess. At this writing, TSA is directing all inquiries to the non-operating, non-governmental Verified Identity Pass. Hey, it’s not their program. Call that number that responds with a recording telling you it’s no longer in service. Tough luck, Mr. and Ms. Verified Traveler. Go to the back of the line.
If you look at the quickly rebuilt Website for Verified identity Pass, Inc. (, you’ll see they invoke the names of TSA and Lockheed Martin. They say you can check it out for updates that haven’t been made for several weeks. You want a refund? Read the Website. More tough luck for you. You want to call or write to complain? There’s no contact information. None.
Our Congress Critters demanded a government-run passenger screening program in the wake of 9/11. They established the Department of Homeland Security, and under its banner chartered the Transportation Security Administration. See all those people with blue uniforms and shiny badges hanging around at the airport? They are government employees. They report to someone who ultimately reports to someone in Washington. When part of the passenger screening process suddenly breaks, none of these government officials are remotely responsible. Heck, it was some defunct private company you can’t even reach.
For those of you breathlessly waiting for government-managed healthcare, here are two object lessons for you to consider. I have a friend from Canada who called me just last week asking for the name of a good surgeon here in the United States. He’s not happy with what he’s already paying for, and is looking to pay even more. Ingenious, yet evil.

John McCumber is a security and risk professional, and is the author of “Assessing and Managing Security Risk in IT Systems: A Structured Methodology,” from Auerbach Publications. If you have a comment or question for him, please e-mail John at: