Clear: Convenience is in the eye of the beholder

It seems like something out of a James Bond film. A man in a suit walks through a bustling airport. He approaches a small blue box placed next to a door, and leans in. The box scans his iris, which matches it to a custom binary code that connects his iris and fingerprint with his identity and history. At the speed of light, he is identified, along with his address, credit card information, past interactions with the law, and more. The door swings open, unlocked by the image of his eye. He walks through briskly, on the way to his gate.


Virtual identity digital identity computer, computer communication, by Unknown. Used under CC0 Licensing. Source.

This is Clear, a biometric security company teaming up with airports and sports stadiums around the United States. Their proposal is simple: you give them your biometric information, and they get you into the game or onto your flight faster than a traditional line does. All you do is walk up, scan yourself, and walk in. For the companies which have installed Clear scanners, they get more granular information about their customers than is usually possible, and customers who feel less encumbered by security procedures. You can find Clear in airports, MLB stadiums, and Hertz rental car locations across America. Clear is even Safety Act certified by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which exists to “ensure that the threat of liability does not deter potential manufacturers or sellers of effective anti-terrorism technologies from developing and commercializing technologies that could save lives.” [1] (What this means is that this technology was developed with funds from the Department of Homeland Security.) The future is now.


Clear offers corporate memberships, too. Employers are promised “happier, more productive teams” and the ability to “maximize [their] employees’ time on the road” by enrolling their entire staff in Clear.[2] It is impossible to say exactly how much data about your movements your employer would have if they bought Clear for the office, or how much of your own data you could see if you were to buy a Clear subscription for yourself. The only two clickable links on the Corporate Enrollment page open up a Microsoft Outlook wizard so I can send Clear an email, and not to pages with further, more transparent information as I had hoped. Obviously, Clear would like all information gathered about them to be gathered quietly. Meanwhile, the Corporate Enrollment page itself is filled with only platitudinal one-liners about happiness, productivity, and experience.


The Clear website is modern, but not too futuristic. This is an advanced level of surveillance being marketed to a much wider audience than ever before, and it is clear that the website is meant to comfort rather than inspire awe. Fashionable people pull their unscuffed luggage behind them, and a beaming Clear associate helps an older, equally smiley gentleman use a Clear kiosk. The messaging is clear: This is a trustworthy technology which will definitely not result in a 2001 A Space Odyssey-esque situation in which I am denied entry to a flight as a Clear kiosk somberly says, “I’m sorry Samantha, I’m afraid I can’t do that.” Indeed, even the Clear kiosks are not what one might expect biometric scanning devices to look like. Although sleek and high-tech, these machines essentially resemble small, blue ATMs, about as far from the surveillance robots Hollywood has trained us to associate with futuristic techno-dystopias as they can be. Everything about Clear’s design choices indicate that this technology is trustworthy, secure, and familiar. 


Image by teguhjatipras. Used under Pixabay License. Source.

For those who are a bit more skeptical of this large corporation which is entering airports and scanning irises everywhere, the website has Joshua to reassure you. Joshua, an affable-looking mid-thirty year old who is identified as a Clear Manager, is featured on the website saying, “From the moment they first enroll, our members become family. I catch myself remembering the names of members I see every day!”[3]  Surely, I cannot be the only person who does not want Joshua to surveil my movement often enough that he remembers me personally.


A quick Google search of Clear makes it evident that, although I am not the only person unhappy at the thought of Joshua knowing my travel details, I am likely among a minority. Articles rave about how much more efficient travel is with Clear, journalists help desperate travelers find deals on Clear services (Clear currently costs $15 USD per month, or $180 USD per year), and bloggers share their Clear experiences (use their unique discount code for a deal!). Henry Ford is often quoted as saying, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Is biometric line-jumping what we’ve unknowingly been clamoring for?[4]


For the sake of clarity, it is worth noting that Clear is not a company unto itself. Clear is the product of Alclear LLC (formerly known as Verified Identity Card, Inc.), a corporation based in Manhattan, New York. Founded in 2003, it has always been in the business of making travel faster in exchange for data. Earlier models of Clear used a physical card which could be scanned and swiped at kiosks in combination with the use of biometrics. In the past few years, Clear was able to do away with the card and create partnerships with Delta Airlines, Hertz, and the MLB. Indeed, fliers of Delta can now do away with all their ID and their boarding passes – all of this information will be communicated to the airlines and to security organizations once their irises are scanned. No more fumbling for your boarding pass, no more panicking about having lost said boarding pass, no more wincing as you hand a flight attendant your passport, which includes what must surely be one of the worst photos ever taken of you.

And people are thrilled.

Biometric Boarding from iflymia on Vimeo.


It is true that security and ID checks take a long time in airports, and that on more than one occasion I have wished I could skip the whole ordeal and just walk onto my plane. When I expressed this wish, however, it never involved selling my iris, my fingerprint, and my identity to a private corporation the privacy policy of which is, frankly, far too short for the incredible amount of information they collect. And yet, people genuinely don’t mind trading that much information for the convenience of breezing through an airport. 


I won’t spend time dwelling here on the concept of data being currency, and personal data in particular being a currency. This has been covered at length, and is now generally considered a fact not up for debate. I will note, however, that there is a reason Clear’s services are so affordable. $15 per month is, by a common metric for modern spending, about 1 latte every week.[5] This is very little to pay for a complicated service that combines biometrics with your entire government profile, physical traits, and your history, then leverages all of that to get you into Yankee Stadium faster than any other fan. Of course, it doesn’t just cost $15 per month to use Clear. It costs $15 per month, plus some of the most sensitive data about you in existence. Does anyone love the Yankees that much?




Biometric reader, Epcot Center, Walt Disney World. Photo by Cory Doctorow. 2006.

The Clear website boasts that 33 000 000 trips have been made using Clear technology, presumably since the company opened its doors in 2003, and 33 500 000 individual verifications (on-site identity checks) done. With its rising popularity and newfound partnerships, this number is certainly going to grow. Clear even makes enrolling a breeze: fill out an online form, and then visit one of their locations (most are in airports) for a five-minute chat to confirm your interest in Alclear having all of your information. Overall, about a half hour will go into giving away all your information, and agreeing to give Alclear the right to confirm whether or not you are who you say you are when travelling. In theory, you might never have to interact with a pre-boarding flight attendant again. (“Can I get on the plane now?” “I’m sorry Samantha, I’m afraid I can’t do that.”)


Of course, Clear is not an evil corporation. Founders Caryn Seidman-Becker and Ken Cornick aren’t sitting in an underground lair somewhere slowly patting a long-haired white cat in giant wingback chairs. The danger of Clear isn’t Clear, per se, it’s those who are able to outsmart it. Clear takes a vast array of data which were once stored separately and brings them together, making it easier for hackers to concentrate their efforts on only one database instead of twenty to get all the same information. Clear’s website and privacy policy indicate that they have done their best to protect all the information it has gathered, but as the Internet has demonstrated time and time again, there is no lock that can’t be broken. 


The trade-off between security and convenience isn’t new, and while Digital Tattoo has devoted lots of attention to this relationship we are not the only ones. The Atlantic has explored this relationship, among others, and although a Pew report shows that Americans are generally comfortable trading their data for convenience, once their data has been collected they become nervous about its use. Still, the data-for-convenience economy isn’t slowing down any time soon, and the uses of these new technologies seem to triple every day. China’s Sharp Eyes project allows residents to unlock their doors simply by looking at them, an enormously beneficial service for anybody carrying too many grocery bags. However, China is the global leader in political prisoners, and Sharp Eyes allows for extremely granular scrutiny of citizen behaviour and patterns.


“I’ve got nothing to hide” is a common refrain used by citizens unopposed to surveillance measures in democratic countries. This has never been a particularly reliable argument, however. We all, at one point or another, have something to hide. Even if we don’t, it only makes sense to defend our privacy in anticipation of the day we do. After all, if Canada ever experiences its own Arab Spring we will be pleased to have protected what little privacy we could.


It is extremely unlikely that I will ever register with Clear. I don’t need or want all of my most sensitive information stored in one single database and I don’t attend nearly enough MLB games or travel enough to justify the cost. There’s no way the benefits of Clear outweigh the risks and there’s certainly no way Clear’s information systems are genuinely unhackable. I will watch with interest and some apprehension as Clear (and its undoubtedly soon-to-come competitors) grow larger and more commonplace. But let Clear determine whether or not I make it onto my next flight?


Not today, HAL 9000.



[1] Safety Act | Department of Homeland Security

[2] Corporate Membership | Clear

[3] About us | Clear

[4] It is worth noting that there is no evidence that Henry Ford ever said this. It’s still a good line. 

[5] A grande latte at Starbucks costs $3.65. 


Further Reading

Clear Members Can Now Go Through Airport Security Without Showing ID or Scanning a Boarding Pass | Conde Nast Traveler (2019)

Customer Convenience or Surveillance Society? | Timo Elliott (2018)

The Evolution of Activism: From the Streets to Social Media | Law Street Media (2016)

A Massive Biometric Breach is Only a Matter of Time | Venture Beat (2019)

Who Owns Your Data? | Digital Tattoo

Biometric Data | Digital Tattoo



Written by: Samantha Summers

Edited by: Eseohe Ojo

Featured Image: Eye Iris Biometrics, by geralt. Used under Pixabay License.

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