The private security screening company Clear is rolling out facial recognition technology at its expedited airport checkpoints in 2024, replacing the company’s iris-scanning and fingerprint-checking measures. With a presence at more than 50 U.S. airports, Clear’s update is the latest sign in a broader shift toward biometrics in air travel that is raising concerns from some privacy experts and advocates.
Clear’s shift to its new screening technology, which the company is calling NextGen Identity Plus, also includes stronger verification of identity documents by comparing them “back to the issuing source,” the company told The Washington Post. Clear said it has been collaborating with the Department of Homeland Security and TSA since 2020 to make these changes. Members who pay $189 a year for a Clear Plus subscription will be moved to the new technology free of charge.
Just last year, the Transportation Security Administration also announced it would begin using facial recognition technology in its airport checkpoints. Other face recognition systems, like those used by law enforcement agencies, use photos taken of unidentified people (sometimes without explicit consent) and compares them to a large database in order to find a match.
Clear’s system differs, the company told The Post, in that it only compares live snapshots taken of travelers using the designated Clear airport lane to data from their enrollment in NextGen Identity Plus. Moving from iris and fingerprint scanning to facial scanning should help customers get through Clear’s checkpoints faster.
Clear has long been in the business of biometrics in its screening practices at airports, arenas and other public venues. But a turn to facial recognition may lead to increased risk of surveillance and reduced privacy for travelers, privacy advocates say.
“As someone who flies constantly, I’m really disturbed to see the transformation of airports into biometric surveillance centers,” said Albert Fox Cahn, founder and executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (STOP).
Adam Schwartz, the privacy litigation director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), also said that he and the organization have “for many years been increasingly alarmed” by the way biometrics have become a common part of flying.
The growth of facial recognition technology means that more potentially dangerous personal information could wind up in the wrong hands. Several U.S. cities, including San Francisco and Boston, have already banned the use of such technology by police and other government agencies due to privacy, safety and bias concerns.
While TSA has said it does not save the pictures it takes of travelers for its facial recognition procedures, Clear will be storing the initial photo that members take to enroll in NextGen Identity Plus in order to compare it to the snapshots passengers submit when they go through the Clear lane.
“Biometrics are a particularly hazardous technology for many reasons,” Schwartz said. “We can’t change our biometrics without extreme measures like burning off our fingerprints or getting extreme facial reconstruction surgery. Unlike other numbers that can be changed if we’re a victim of a fraud or whatnot, we have our biometrics for life.”
And while Schwartz added that “biometrics, in general, are easy for adversaries to get,” there’s a particular concern that “because most of us are showing our faces all the time, [facial recognition] can turn into a way for the government or businesses to track us as we move about the world,” he said. In the future, he said, that could mean being “tracked throughout the airport experience: upon arrival, checking in, checking your bags, going to a restaurant, buying coffee, getting on the airplane.”
Cahn also raised the issue of surveillance, arguing that Clear’s terms of service “give law enforcement almost unfettered access to the data they collect.” When presented with that characterization, Clear called it “absolutely inaccurate,” adding that “privacy and data security are job one at CLEAR – we will always operate to protect our Members and their information.”
“If CLEAR were required by law to share information with law enforcement authorities, they would have to go through the appropriate channels to request information such as a subpoena,” the company said in an emailed statement.
Consent presents another complication for the growing implementation of face recognition tech. Even if people technically have the option to decline to participate in such technology — something true for both Clear and the TSA’s facial recognition practices — it might not feel like a viable option to travelers.
Schwartz argued that consent for technologies like Clear “might not be genuine.” It’s not a “fair playing field,” he said, if the result of facial recognition technologies being used by companies like Clear — or by TSA — is that those who opt in “zip onto the plane,” and those who don’t have to wait in long lines.
Even if travelers do decline to participate in face recognition, they can face other hurdles. When Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) declined to have his photo taken by a TSA facial recognition machine this summer, for example, he faced pushback and was told that opting out would cause a delay, according to his spokesperson.
Clear’s recruitment strategies allow travelers to quickly sign up for a paid Clear membership at dedicated Clear security lanes, which are conveniently located right next to standard TSA checkpoints. To Cahn, the practice raises questions about consent, as people who are worried about missing their flight due to long security lines may feel coerced to sign up.
“The truth is that, all too often the quote ‘voluntary’ choices we make at airports are coerced,” Cahn said. “If the choice is between missing your flight and handing over your data, people are more likely to hand over your data.”
Clear said in an email that the company operates under “strict protocols, guidelines, and training programs for our hospitality and security focused ambassadors. We are confident that Members know what they are signing up for in the airport.”
While those who sign up at the airport are registering for a free trial, the company said that 88.5 percent of people who sign up for Clear in or outside of the airport remain members. The company called the statistic “a reflection of the value of the service we provide.”
Cahn isn’t so sure it’s worth it.
“At the end of the day, I don’t think [facial recognition] is going to do a damn thing to keep the public safe,” Cahn said. “I worry that we’re moving ever closer to a world where the price of protecting your privacy at the airport is truly unconscionable and exhausting delays: paying for your privacy with your time.”