Fear and Loathing in an Airport Check-In Line

A new security service promises a shorter airport check-in, but an expert user isn’t thrilled by it.


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At almost every turn these days, we are faced with situations that inspire memories of George Orwell’s “Big Brother.” It's the all-knowing and all-seeing government watcher whose merciless oversight is rivaled only by the fervor with which the government assures us that everything is done – purely – in our best interests.

Luckily for those who fear rampant privacy invasion – and unluckily for those who hope the government might deliver greater security – our government’s preferred method of efficiency involves farming critical duties out to lowest bidding contractors.

My own most recent brush with the rusty gears of the not so well-oiled machinery of free enterprise came in the form of sacrificing my privacy – yet again! – for you, the dear readers of this column.

Yes, I am now a “Registered Traveler!”

Duly probed and vetted by the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA), complete with my biometric data imprinted on a snazzy smartcard, and $100 poorer, I am now cleared to waltz past the rest of the madding crowd. Of course I still have to take off my shoes.

The idea to be a guinea pig on your behalf was hatched as I stood in yet another insanely long security line at the San Francisco International Airport.

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If you’ve never been to the security line at SFO’s Terminal 3, it’s certainly not something for the faint of heart.

As if a half-hour wait weren’t enough, somebody at the TSA thought it would lighten the atmosphere by having one highly caffeinated security officer mill through the crowd joking with the crowd. During a recent trip, the TSA’s answer to Shecky Green reminded me no less than four times (in a span of 20 minutes) that I should throw away my water bottle – unless it was vodka, in which case I should hand it to him.

As I resisted the urge to whack him upside the head with my ziplock bag full of fluids, I spied some workmen installing a new batch of security machinery belonging to a company called Clear.

The special biometric scanning pods certainly looked very futuristic, like something the Cardassians might have used to torture Captain Picard in an episode of Star Trek. Would the special security lines for Registered Travelers merely be trading one set of tortures for another?

I decided to find out.

The process of registering for Clear was pretty straightforward. It didn’t really reveal much more about me than could be found by searching public records such as date of birth, places of residence over the last five years, and a few other tid-bits.

Once the information was gathered on their Web site, I was given a registration number that I printed and took to the airport for the in-person enrollment. At a special enrollment station in a corner of the terminal, a Clear representative called up my data, scanned images of two government-issued IDs, then she scanned my irises and took my fingerprints.

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.

The iris scan was a new one for me. Or maybe not. As it turns out, iris scanning is not hard to do and can even be done without the cooperation of the “scanee.” I’ve seen demonstrations of iris scanning systems that use facial recognition and high-powered cameras that can capture decent iris images as people walk through places like airports and casinos.

The in-person enrollment process only took about five minutes. Then I was told to wait for my ID card to arrive in the mail in a few weeks, provided the background check went smoothly. Sure enough, about a week later I got an email saying that I’d been approved by the TSA (Yay! I’m apparently not Osama Bin Laden!), and that I should expect my ID in ten days or so.

Almost a month later, however, I still hadn’t received my ID.

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