Fear and Loathing in an Airport Check-In Line: Page 2

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Immediately I had visions of my ID card being intercepted in the post office by an Al-Qaida operative who would soon try to convince airport security that they really were just a chubby, pasty-skinned lawyer who’d lost some weight and gotten a good tan.

Logging into the Clear website, I was able to tell them that my card never arrived, whereupon they deactivated it in their system and promised to issue a new one. About a week later the replacement card finally arrived. (Naturally, its arrival was followed a few days later by the arrival of the original card!)

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Armed with my shiny new card, I headed to the airport last week for my first trip as a Registered Traveler. I stepped up to the special Clear security lane and declared to the attendant, “I am a Clear virgin.”

The handsome young attendant winked, looked at his colleagues and with a sly grin said, “I think we can fix that!”

I was offered my choice of pods and choice of scans – eye or thumb. I stepped up into a large blue pod-like device, inserted my card and prepared to be violated. (This is San Francisco, after all.)

I wasn’t expecting what happened next. I was faced with yet another profound moment of existential questioning. While scanning my thumb, the system froze and threw up a cryptic error message that included words to the effect of, “user does not exist.”

For me, airports often inspire questions of being and existence, such as when the automatic faucet in the men’s room sink won’t turn on, no matter how much I wave my hands in front of the sensor.

Luckily the attendant was there to affirm my existence and guided me to another pod where I reinserted my card, fondled the unit with my thumb, and finally got a green light. I was then ushered over to a security checkpoint where I had to partially disrobe, as usual.

In the end, my assessment of the Registered Traveler program is that it’s like so many of the so-called “conveniences” that try to make the miserable air travel experience slightly less soul-crushing. For heavy travelers, the expense and the minimal additional privacy exposure might be worth the slightly speedier security experience.

Then again, heavy travelers are already sometimes able to take advantage of special security lines as part of their membership in frequent flyer programs. So the benefits of a service like Clear is somewhat limited when those options are also available.

Provided that the security of the Clear system – its database and the smartcards themselves – are as advertised, I don’t feel like the privacy risk is all that tremendous for someone like me, whose privacy is already “compromised” by having been probed and vetted in many ways by the government over many years.

The more practical issue for me is whether the 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 rising oppression.

They say that Mussolini did make the trains run on time, so as we slowly slide into our fascist future, maybe we do have on-time arrivals to look forward to. Either way, as long as I get my frequent flyer points, I’ll be happy.

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