Retina and fingerprint scanners let frequent flyers breeze through security checks

By Andrew Dubbins

CLEAR kiosks at LAX use biometric scanning to speed travelers through airport security

When I was assigned to write about the new subscription-based biometrics system at LAX called CLEAR — which allows members to bypass the TSA’s identity-check line by scanning their fingerprint or retina — I was ready to wax on about how I’m too private a person for this, too much of a clean freak, too squeamish about eye stuff (I hate when they zoom in on eyes in movies), and how this too closely resembles a sci-fi dystopia like the one in “Minority Report,” where advertisers and the government can track your every move through biometrics.

Then I remembered that I scan my fingerprint every few days to enter my local 24 Hour Fitness — that biometrics has already become a routine fact of life.

But are we cool with that?

David Cohen is. He’s chief administrative officer at CLEAR.

“Biometrics offers the means to a more convenient life,” says Cohen. “A friction-free life.”

Cohen says the long-term goal of CLEAR — already serving 1.1 million members at sports stadiums and airports across the country — is to expand to every access point across the globe that requires a pin, keycard, or credit card. That includes restaurants, retail stores, movie theaters and other transit operators. A whole world of places that know who you are the minute you walk in the door.

CLEAR pods already inside most LAX terminals allow prospective users to verify their ID with a passport or driver’s license, scan their iris and fingerprint, then start using CLEAR immediately for a monthly fee of $15. It’s as easy as signing up for one of those airline-sponsored credit cards.

Specifics of CLEAR aside, protocol in the new millennium has generally been to roll out a technology first and consider the consequences later. (Take Snapchat’s “Miles per Hour” filter. It wasn’t until teen drivers started getting into fatal collisions that the Venice-based company decided this filter might not be the best idea). And so the time has come for a post-rollout evaluation of biometrics.

Stephanie Lacambra, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation — a San Francisco nonprofit formed to protect civil liberties in the digital age — worries about false positives and misidentification.

“The biometric matching program,” she says, “will only be able to give you the closest mathematical match within its database, and there’s no way to definitively know if the true candidate is included in that dataset or not.”

Lacambra points to the FBI’s Interstate Photo System (IPS), through which law enforcement compares your photo to a database of mug shots. According to the bureau’s own testing, IPS proved to be incapable of accurate identification at least 15% of the time (bad news for El Chapo lookalikes).

She’s also concerned about identity theft. You can’t change your fingerprints or iris images the way you would a password or email account. When hackers steal your biometrics, they’re thieving your identity for good, and they can use it however they see fit.

“Hackers,” says Lacambra, “will be able to track or manipulate your biometric history or profile to their advantage, whether by using it to break into your various accounts or just setting up dummy accounts of their own.”

Last but not least is the risk of perpetual, persistent surveillance. Surveillance may seem like small potatoes when it comes to your travel habits, ballpark trips or gym visits, but what if down the line it involves constitutionally protected activities, such as whom you associate with or what political rallies you attend?

CLEAR’s Cohen is direct and unwavering in his assertion that the company does not and will never sell its members’ data — not to advertisers, not to the government, not to anyone.

“The integrity of our company’s data is the integrity of our company,” he says.

But what would happen — hypothetically, of course — if we elected a bully of a president who prides himself on his ability to strong-arm private companies, and this president suddenly demanded that a biometrics company start handing over retina scans ASAP?

Then again, keeping a retina or fingerprint scan on file means getting through LAX security lines in about five minutes. Just. Five. Minutes.

The choice, at least for now, is up to you.