I signed up for CLEAR about 2 years ago while catching a flight to DC from Seattle.
CLEAR is like “TSA PRE for VIPs.” Basically, you pay $100 annually and, at many — but not all-airports — you can jump the TSA PRE line. You also don’t have to show ID as your biometrics are scanned into the system, proving identity.
I had noticed, in the years before that, that more and more people were gaining TSA PRE. Same for Global Entry. I alone probably got 50 people to sign up for the former and maybe 20 for the latter. They are huge time savers. I’d say that CLEAR saves me 10-20 minutes on average on every other flight I take. Given how much I used to fly, it was worth it when I signed up.
Whenever I use the CLEAR line, it takes, on average, 1-2 minutes to get to the x-ray screening area.
Until Monday, March 11th.
When I got to Dulles at 7:10am for my 7:35am boarding/8am departure flight, I was confronted with a CLEAR line that was, at least, 45 people long.
That has NEVER happened to me.
I asked about it and, apparently, the Monday morning rush is like this. I just don’t travel on Monday mornings that often.
Still, other passengers made the same remark that volume was unusually high.
I immediately jumped to the conclusion that CLEAR was experiencing massive growth and that, eventually, we’d see an even higher priced, more exclusive service. Effectively, we will be privatizing security at airports based on price points.
Then, I caught myself and realized that it may, in fact, be just one data point. A Monday morning rush hour for business people makes a ton of sense. So, maybe this was an anomaly.
Either way, as I stood in line, I had a terrifying thought.
The reason CLEAR is able to process people so much faster is that they, like Global Entry, use biometric (retina and fingerprint) to identify people.
Now, when I signed up for the service, I acknowledged that I was signing away some privacy in favor of convenience. A trade-off we are increasingly making as a society.
I did it anyway.
But when I saw the number of people who had made the same decision, I realized that the databases for both CLEAR and Global Entry were becoming a biometric Equifax.
Equifax, as you know, was breeched and the personal and financial data of over 100 million Americans was stolen. What the impact of that theft will be over the long term remains to be seen.
As these two biometric databases become more popular, they will become a bigger target for hackers. There’s no question there’s a black market for individual biometric data.
Any security expert will tell you a hack is not a question of “if,” just a question of “when.” Ultimately, if it hasn’t happened already, both of these databases will be compromised. Similarly, the consequences will be unknown and far-reaching.
For something as critical as individual biometric identity, a centralized system, vulnerable to compromise, should be a non-starter. Ultimately, we will see decentralized blockchain systems such as Everest take hold because of the way they uniquely address the 2 biggest components of Identity: Authentication and Authorization. (Everest doesn’t have an airport offering like CLEAR, but its technology — and the tech of similar blockchain-based startups — addresses similar use cases. Other players in the space include Civic and uPort.)
Everyone understands “Authentication.” “Are you really who you say you are?”
However, it is “Authorization” that is actually more important. In this scenario, the owner of the Identity is the owner of the data, and they have full control over with who they share with as well as what they share.
With this type of control, individuals are free to start building a history of transactions and ultimately a true “credit score.” In Everest, for example, the transactions are performed via EverWallet and immutably written to the EverChain ledger, which is the source of the “credit score.”
Everest is already working with several government ministries across multiple Asian countries.
As governments and citizens become increasingly aware of privacy issues, there will be increased willingness to consider alternatives. Simultaneously, blockchain technology will continue to grow in terms of security, robustness, adaptability to new threats, and scalability. When it does, it will enable solutions that are orders of magnitude superior and will more effectively balance the need for biometric data as unique identifiers with the need for maximum security of that biometric data to protect individuals.
Eventually, global personal identity systems will live only on blockchain-based systems.
It’s pretty clear to me, at least.
Jeremy Epstein is CEO of Never Stop Marketing and author of The CMO Primer for the Blockchain World. He currently works with startups in the blockchain and decentralization space, including OpenBazaar, Zcash, ARK, Gladius, Peer Mountain and DAOstack.