The mid-August sun is unkind as hundreds of baseball fans—fresh off the equally oppressive Bronx subway platform—stand in a line at Gate 6 outside Yankee Stadium clenching bottled waters. While they wait to empty their pockets, open their purses, and walk through one of the magnetron scanners to see their home team take a beating from the Tampa Bay Rays, a middle-aged man zips past the queue through a separate lane and presses his fingers against a screen at a kiosk with the word clear emblazoned on the sides in blue. I flag him down. The 50-year-old is a New York City resident and three-year member of the Clear program. Was he concerned at all, I ask, about giving a private company his fingerprints simply for the ability to skip a line?
He seems surprised by my question. “Clear having my fingerprints is the least of my worries,” he says. “I’m more worried about my computer getting hacked or something.”
Americans really hate lines. Clear, the New York–based company that counts millions of U.S. citizens (or legal residents) as loyal customers, is betting that the perk we enjoy for handing companies our GPS data, contacts, passwords, and home address—convenience—will also entice more of us to fork over the last piece of personal data we retain in the digital age: our bodies. After persuading members to trust it with their fingerprints, irises, and faces (for $179 annually), Clear treats them to speedier, more seamless experiences at an increasing number of places known for congestion and inefficiency. Clear’s revenue more than doubled in the past year, and the company became profitable in the fourth quarter of 2017. Its biometric service enables fliers at 25 U.S. airports to skip the line for ID verification and scurry straight to the scan, while sports and entertainment fans who attend its 14 partner venues can bypass those sweaty security queues.
A few days after my visit to Yankee Stadium, I meet Clear cofounder and CEO Caryn Seidman-Becker in a monochromatic conference room at the company’s Fifth Avenue headquarters in Midtown Manhattan. She’s sporting a chic bolero jacket over a tee that reads love is the answer. I ask her to explain her vision for how Clear can use our biometric data (fingerprints, irises, faces, and voices) to change the world, and before she answers, she extends an index finger and says, “Hold that thought for one second,” then retrieves her white leather wallet and holds it aloft. “This? This. Makes. No. Sense,” she says, braking after each word. She flings the contents of the wallet—insurance card, Global Entry card, driver’s license—across the conference room table. The platinum and gold Amexes land with a thud in front of me.
“If you were starting the world today, you wouldn’t do this,” Seidman-Becker says. “Estonia [has] 1.6 million digital identities, digital citizens, who are biometrically connected at birth. I’m not suggesting that, but I am suggesting that you are you.”
Clear has its origins in a company called Verified Identity Pass (V.I.P.), which was founded by journalist/author/entrepreneur Steven Brill to let its members bypass security lines using a smart card reinforced with their biometric data. In 2009, after raising $90 million and amassing some 200,000 users, the company went bankrupt, unable to recover from the reputational blow it suffered after losing a laptop containing the personal data of some 33,000 members.
How it works
Seidman-Becker and her Clear cofounder and president, Ken Cornick, swooped in with $6 million, much of it their own capital. The duo had become interested in homeland-defense technologies as cofounders of Arience Capital, a hedge fund that they shuttered in 2008 to look for interesting businesses to buy in the wake of the financial crisis. (“I always said I didn’t want to die and [just] have people say I picked good stocks,” muses Seidman-Becker.) The partnership they forged with Delta Air Lines was instrumental in the company’s turnaround: The airline purchased 5% of Clear and helped it slip into some of the most trafficked Delta-operated terminals in the world, such as those in Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson airport. In addition to annual membership fees, Clear collects payments from some airports ($2.15 million over five years from the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, for example) while offering participating transit partners a percentage of fees from members in each airport’s region.
The formula has been wildly successful: Membership has grown from 500,000 in 2016 to nearly 3 million today, and the company boasts a 90% customer-retention rate. “People love travel, but they don’t love traveling,” Seidman-Becker says. “[With Clear,] you know that you’re going to get through an airport’s security in less than five minutes.”
Clear’s only domestic competition at airports is the Transportation Security Administration’s service TSA PreCheck, which has more members (7 million), and is much cheaper ($85 for five years) and more widely available (200-plus airports). Another program, Global Entry, is run by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection service to expedite passage of international travelers entering the United States. PreCheck and Global Entry both collect fingerprints from participating travelers but unlike Clear do not capture iris or facial scans. All three of the services—PreCheck, Global Entry, and Clear—worked with the Department of Homeland Security to develop tools that could predict the threat level of individual travelers, the “known traveler” model.
Clear is currently experimenting with an adaptation of this model that could be deployed at a vast number of non-airport venues. “In travel, prescreening programs like PreCheck and Global Entry create known travelers,” Clear said in a statement to Fast Company. “As a qualified anti-terrorism technology, Clear believes creating known fan programs can continue to make experiences safer and easier.” A former Clear executive put it this way: “If you wanted to do predictive analytics to show who at a stadium is more likely to bring a gun in, they have the ability to do that.”
Kevin Lupowitz was Clear’s chief information officer from December 2012 to November 2017 and worked with the Department of Homeland Security to refine Clear’s known-traveler predictive capabilities. “That algorithm itself was safety-act certified by Homeland Security,” says Lupowitz. “It got used for MLB.”
Clear is also working with Delta to automate what Seidman-Becker calls the “curb to gate” experience, which includes baggage check and entry into the airline’s Sky Club lounges. In August, it launched an age-verifying device for sports venues that lets fans pay for concessions—including alcohol—by fingerprint. The system is currently in operation with the Seattle Seahawks, Sounders, and Mariners teams. The Mariners also use Clear’s gate-entry services, which reduces security passage for members to a minute, versus 5 to 10 minutes at regular gates, according to Trevor Gooby, the Mariners’ senior vice president of operations. Clear is also courting the ride-hailing and auto sectors, extending its scope into a home-to-gate service: It has pending deals in the rental-car industry, and a recent partnership with Lyft includes a three-month free Clear trial and a $20 credit toward a ride to the airport. Seidman-Becker, a former board member for Mount Sinai’s pediatric division, even has her sights on healthcare, real estate, and education.
“The doctor Xeroxes this,” she says, crumpling her laminated health insurance card. “Why? It should be seamless, more secure, and more economically efficient.”
Clear’s ascent has paralleled a growing anxiety among consumers over how much of their data private companies are collecting, how they’re using it, and how they’re protecting it. Or failing to. This year alone has produced multiple five-alarm breaches, from the hack of Under Armour’s MyFitnessPal app, in which criminals accessed the usernames, email addresses, and passwords of 150 million members, to Facebook’s monumental disclosure that the political firm Cambridge Analytica had harvested the personal data and social activity of up to 87 million of the platform’s users. More recently, Amazon has been publicly assailed by the ACLU, members of Congress, and privacy activists for selling an error-prone facial-recognition program to police.
Biometrics may promise greater security than a username and password, but they “are not a panacea,” warns Ashkan Soltani, a privacy and security researcher who previously served as chief technologist for the Federal Trade Commission. “Once it’s been compromised, it’s forever broken.” Cybersecurity experts looked on in horror, for example, when the Office of Personnel Management revealed in 2015 that hackers had compromised nearly 6 million fingerprints of federal employees.
“We’re living in a surveillance economy,” says Adam Levin, cofounder and chairman of cybersecurity firm CyberScout, who also served as the director of the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs and authored the cybersecurity best seller Swiped. “Everything we do is being tracked, gathered, and disseminated. The question is, What are the unintended consequences? Oftentimes the security required to protect technology may not be catching up fast enough.”
Clear’s storage platform runs on Amazon Web Services, and executives say the company employs deep layers of protection for members’ data: The biometric captures are encrypted in storage; when they’re transferred, they’re converted into numerical form rather than saved as images, so as to thwart reverse engineering. “We feel very good about our security posture,” says Cornick.
Clear spokespeople emphasize that its predictive tools are completely separate from its biometrics business. Both Lupo-witz and a company spokesperson stressed that the predictive models are derived solely from publicly available data, not Clear member data. And company spokespeople affirmed that Clear does not plan to use members’ data in the future for its predictive-analytics capabilities.
Soltani also raises questions about the ethics behind Clear’s marketing. “When passengers are faced with the choice of missing their flight or handing over sensitive information, oftentimes it’s an easy choice to just go ahead and trust this company,” says Soltani. “[They’re] convincing consumers when they’re at their weakest and most desperate.”
Seidman-Becker acknowledges that Clear positions itself as a lifeline when fliers are often experiencing anxiety. “You see the line, or you’re thinking about how stressed you were, and you enroll immediately right there,” she says. “Nobody wakes up and says, ‘Gee, I gotta get some biometric security today.’ ”
Clear takes off
Many experts are calling for additional regulation. “We are at a pivotal point where we need to push government to place restrictions on how companies can collect, use, and share biometric info,” says Jennifer Lynch, senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Although there are currently no federal regulations governing biometric collection, a handful of states have taken action. Illinois was the first: In 2008, it enacted a law that prohibits organizations from selling any biometric data collected, as well as from disclosing that data unless they receive a subpoena or an individual’s consent. Other states have followed, including Texas, Washington, and, most resoundingly, California, which passed a sweeping Consumer Privacy Act in June that covers biometric, geolocation, and internet activity data and was largely seen as a rebuke of the invasive information-slurping tactics of companies like Facebook and Google. “The hope is that it’s a model bill for other states, the same way that the GDPR [General Data Protection Regulation] has set the stage in the international context,” says Soltani, who helped craft the original ballot proposal.
As Clear sees it, concerns about data privacy and cybersecurity are actually setting the stage for growth. “We’re happy that the conversation right now is amped up,” says Seidman-Becker. “We understand and agree with people’s outrage at what happened at Facebook. We don’t think people’s biometrics or data should be used unknowingly.”
Clear will have to navigate an increasingly complex regulatory landscape. Seidman-Becker has watched Uber, Airbnb, and other paradigm-wrecking companies adopt adversarial relationships with regulators—even Verified Identity Pass once tussled with the government—but she says she plans to take a more collaborative approach, working with Congress, the Department of Homeland Security, governors, and mayors.
“We’re trying to make this country safer,” she says. When we conclude our conversation in Clear’s immaculate white conference room, she leads me out through glass doors on which a single word has been applied over and over again in translucent serif typeface: INDEFATIGABLE.