On the Fly™ - Editorial Commentary by Travel Expert Stephanie Abrams

"Open the Door to Opportunity."
--by Travel Expert Stephanie Abrams

For those who have to fly often, know the routine of airport security, and are looking for opportunities to speed the process, a new service has begun to expand at US airports. Known as Clear, this service tested its procedures at Orland's McCoy Airport before it recently spread its operations to Albany, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Little Rock, Newark, JFK, Reno-Tahoe, San Jose, and Westchester Airports. The company plans to expand its services next to LaGuardia Airport in NYC and San Francisco. The purpose of Clear's service is to give priority treatment to pre-screened and pre-approved travelers.

Clear approved passengers bypass the initial line where a TSA representative checks passports and other identification against boarding passes to be sure that the traveler and ID match. The line for initial ID checking can be quite long since it is made up of all travelers including those who fly quite infrequently and apt to slow the process by not having the proper documentation in hand, may be slowing the process “fussing” with children, and may be overloaded with items that will not fit into the luggage cage designed to assure oversized items are not brought on board.

After bypassing the initial security check line, the Clear approved passenger proceeds to the x-ray equipment where standard search procedures apply.

Sounds like a wonderful way to speed the security screening process, doesn't it? So what does it take to become a Clear traveler? One needs to fill out a form with information that will lead to a background check and pay a fee of $99.00 for a one year membership, which will give the traveler access to the Clear land at participating airports. The form is available online and at participating airports. Once the form is completed and submitted, the applicant needs to go to a participating airport for fingerprinting and an iris scan which is done by a process in which the applicant looks into what seems to be a mirror. The device stores the image of the iris/retina in its database.

Once the background check results are approved, the passenger is directed to bypass the first security checkpoint and to use a lane identified for Clear members. The Clear passenger finds a mirror-like device into which the traveler must look. The device then matches the “eye print” of the traveler with information in its database and approves Clear passengers to move directly to the next phase of security check-in at the x-ray equipment areas.

In theory, this is a wonderful service for the frequent traveler. The time-saving aspects of the Clear program, coupled with the elimination of the hassle of standing in long lines behind passengers who unaccustomed to procedures and, therefore, create additional delays, is a serious plus. Additionally, the yearly fee is the entry key to Clear services in every airport they serve and all the airports they plan to serve.

If there is a downside, it is intricately woven into questions of privacy, discrimination, and potential wrongful identification. Having fingerprints on file, as well as eye prints, creates a database whose use could be commandeered for reasons other than fast tracking at airports. While the company emphatically states that all information is protected and information is secure, we all know that stories about the private information stored at the Social Security Administration, in the databases of international banks credit card systems and major department stores where all that was considered private ended up in the hands of the unscrupulous. And, the potential for governmental confiscation is always one government issued warrant away from happening.

Typically, one would say, “If I haven't done anything wrong, what do I have to worry about?' And therein lies the rub! It is all too possible, once your fingerprints and retina prints are stored that they can and will become part of some investigation, especially because they place the person at airports which are elements of investigations as they relate to criminals fleeing city. “And if I'm not associated with that criminal act, why should I worry?” you ask.

Let me briefly tell you the story of Police Inspector Shirley McKie of Strathclyde, Scotland. Her story has made a major change in the way that fingerprint information is used but you've probably never heard her dramatic story because we rarely get foreign news unless it is literally earthshaking. While she insisted she was innocent, Inspector Mc Kie was indicated and found guilty of participating in a robbery because of testimony from four fingerprint experts at Scotland Yard at her trial who testified that the thumbprint on the doorway at a burglary site belonged to McKie. This innocent police officer was incarcerated because of the testimony that there was a match between her fingerprint and that found at the scene of the crime. McKie's ruined family life, professional life, and social life, took a backseat to the continued fight to clear her name and terminate her prison sentence. An American fingerprint expert is credited with having the judgment tossed out, exonerating McKie and awarding her an amount equivalent to $1.5 million in compensation for pain, suffering, and loss of pay. And how was it possible that one fingerprint expert could introduce evidence to refute the four experts who testified that it was definitely McKie's thumbprint? While the prosecution focused on the many points of the crime scene's print matching McKie's print, they didn't bother to mention two specific and unique angular portions of the thumbprint which did not appear on McKie's print. Any thinking person could easily see that her thumb, while have similarity to the crime print in many spots, was not capable of producing the angular spots which did not appear on her thumb. Had McKie been an ordinary citizen, her thumbprint would not have been in the database when the crime scene print was run through the system and the possibility of wrongful identification would not have been an issue.

The moral of this story for me is that wrongful identifications, round-ups of people with certain physical traits, and other injustices have been known to human history in our recent past. With complex identification means entered routinely into a data pool, the possibility of misuse of information cannot be ignored no matter how secure the system is and no matter how well-meaning a company may be about protecting privacy of its members. If Scotland Yard can, with all of its expertise, be confused in the process of making a simple identification of a thumbprint, it should give us pause to consider the potential ramifications of entering a system where a piece of technology will decide whether we can fly or not. Far too many people are currently on “No Fly” lists simply because their names are similar to someone who is considered a danger. Progress always leaves us to ponder whether we are better or worse off for the steps we take forward.

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