Since the federal government began letting select frequent fliers with new high-tech passes speed through airport security checkpoints, one of the biggest complaints has been that the year-old program is too limited to be of much use.
Now, a privately run version coming online in Florida could spur efforts to broaden the program - and boost media entrepreneur Steven Brill's vision of installing such a system across the nation at airports and other security-sensitive locations.
Beginning June 21, the Orlando airport will let travelers pay $80 a year for a card that guarantees an exclusive security line and the promise of no random secondary pat-down. To get this new â€œClearâ€œ card, travelers would have to be vetted by the Department of Homeland Security and submit to fingerprint and iris scans.
Similar systems exist at some European airports, and in five U.S. airports as part of a test by the Transportation Security Administration.
But the TSA's â€œRegistered Travelerâ€œ program, which is free for now while in its test phase, has been capped at 10,000 participants, and cards obtained at one airport don't work at others.
The company behind Clear is Verified Identity Pass Inc., which Brill founded in 2003 in hopes of creating a nationwide, voluntary system that would give pre-screened people a dedicated fast lane for entering secure areas - not only at airports but also office buildings, power plants and stadiums.
Brill, the founder of Court TV and American Lawyer magazine, argues that while more rigorous security checks are needed in post-Sept. 11 America, it doesn't make sense for everyone to have to go through them.
New York-based Verified ID has attracted such investors as Lehman Bros. and Lockheed Martin Corp., which is providing the technology for Clear. But until the Orlando deal, Verified Identity Pass had not snared a customer.
Brill says he has had talks with about 20 other airports.
He's giving them good reason to listen: In its proposal to Orlando officials - which beat a rival bid from technology integrator Unisys Corp. - Verified ID promised to share 29 percent of Clear's first-year revenue with the airport authority and as much as 22.5 percent in succeeding years. The airport also would get 2.5 percent of Clear's future nationwide revenue.
The proposal says Verified ID expects to have 3.3 million members across the nation within six years, with annual memberships likely costing $100.
That kind of participation is well beyond the scope of the TSA's Registered Traveler tests, which have been limited to certain airlines' passengers in Boston, Los Angeles, Houston, Minneapolis-St. Paul and Washington-Reagan. A separate, older program, known as INSPASS, lets frequent international travelers whisk through some U.S. Customs checkpoints with the use of hand-shape biometrics.
The TSA is open to broadening Registered Traveler through public-private partnerships, and several airports have expressed interest, said Steve Van Beek, executive vice president of policy for Airports Council International, a trade association. But he is concerned that the concept could run aground unless the TSA enforces technology standards that enable cards to work at more than one airport.
Not everyone, however, is ready for trusted-traveler programs to take off.
Chris Bidwell, who oversees security for the Air Transport Association, which represents airlines, says it remains to be seen whether Registered Traveler does much to enhance security, especially because many airports' lines aren't that long anyway.
Privacy watchdogs have questioned how flyers' personal data will be handled, although Brill pledges that Clear will obtain minimal information on its members and store almost none. For example, the system will not record its users' comings and goings the way automated toll-collection devices do.
â€œWe have much less information about you, at our best, than any credit card company has,â€œ Brill said.
(Brill also has distanced himself from Choicepoint Inc., the data aggregator originally cited as one of Verified ID's partners. Brill said he wouldn't work with the company until it fixes the problems that led to a massive leak of personal information to identity thieves that came to light in February. A private data-mining company like Choicepoint isn't necessary for Clear in airports anyway, since the government is doing the vetting.)
Other observers worry that fast lanes will be tempting to terrorists whose records are clean enough to earn them a â€œtrustedâ€œ label.
â€œAs soon as you make an easy path and a hard path through a security system, you invite the bad guys to try to take the easy path,â€œ said Bruce Schneier, author of â€œBeyond Fear: Thinking Sensibly about Security in an Uncertain World.â€œ
â€œIt's counterintuitive,â€œ Schneier said. â€œEveryone complains: 'Why are you frisking grandmas?' But if you don't frisk grandmas, that's who (terrorists) are going to pick to carry bombs.â€œ
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