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For $179 and a biometric scan of your face, you can skip the line at Sea-Tac airport

Passengers make their way through security at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer
Passengers make their way through security at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

Want to cut the long lines at the Seattle-Tacoma airport this summer?  All you have to do is hand over scans of your face, eyes and fingerprints to a private company called CLEAR. 

Oh, and $179.

That bargain seemed strange to a couple of KUOW listeners, including Philip Shaw, who asked us to do a story on CLEAR.

“I don’t clearly understand their business model,” Shaw said, “It just seems like there's a lot of questions from a public citizen standpoint.”

The story about CLEAR's business starts with the long security lines. Nearly 70,000 thousand people could go through security today, which would set a new record.  

The number of passengers flying in and out of Sea-Tac has grown colossally over the last five years. Through May of this year the airport has served around 19 million passengers, up 43 percent since 2013. It's been hard for the Port of Seattle and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to keep up with the volume of people who need to be screened.

Passengers like Madison Etiz have one concern, “I am in such a hurry I would really like to get on this flight as soon as possible," she said.

Then she heard the sound of relief from a salesperson standing next to a white CLEAR kiosk:  “Skip that line right now, five minutes or less, 30 days free.”

So Etiz signed up, because “it sounds way better than sitting there waiting for 40 minutes,” she said.

That’s how CLEAR drums up business.  But what is CLEAR, exactly?

A TSA spokesperson told me it was "a concierge program." For $179 a year, you get to go to front of the security line.

When you sign up, you have to give CLEAR a bunch of personal data, but the company also scans your fingerprints, and your eyes and your face.

What security purpose does that biometric data serve at the airport?

None, according to TSA. CLEAR just uses fingerprints instead of a government ID to verify your identity.

But after you cut the outer line, you still have go through regular airport screening like everyone else. If you don’t have TSA Pre as well, you may even still need to take off your shoes.   

So why does CLEAR need all that your biometric data?

On its website, the company says the concept is to make travel and shopping easier. In the future, maybe you could buy a beer at a ball game with just your fingerprint. And CLEAR's system for securing your biometric data is government-approved.

But privacy advocates say there are still a lot of unanswered questions about CLEAR.

“The biometric data concern is one tip of a very big iceberg,” said Shahid Buttar, with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, “And the essentially unlimited purposes for which the non-biometric data can be used including marketing purposes, that is certainly very privacy compromising."

Buttar also said customers should worry about exactly what would happen to their data if the company ever gets sold.

On its website, CLEAR says:  “We reserve the right to transfer information we have about you in the event we sell or transfer all or a portion of our business or assets, as permitted or required by law.”

If CLEAR's business is sold, the company says it will use "reasonable efforts" to direct the new owners of your personal data to handle that data according to its privacy policy. 

CLEAR would not provide on-air comments for this story, but did send a statement that said the company "never rents or sells member data to third parties, including biometric data."

The Port of Seattle agreed to let CLEAR set up shop in 2016.  Now, the Port gets 10 percent of CLEAR's gross sales at SeaTac. Delta Air Lines also has a 5 percent stake in the company.

Perry Cooper with the Port of Seattle said CLEAR simply provides a good option for some passengers, particularly frequent travelers and business travelers.

So if you don't mind handing over some money—and your data, of course—CLEAR is now available in 30 airports and sport stadiums nationwide, including Safeco field. 

Correction 6/25/18: An earlier version of this story misstated CLEAR's participation. 


Year started with KUOW: 2004