TSA, Analysts Question Security Value of Registered Traveler Program
By Caitlin Webber, CQ Staff
While providers of the rapidly expanding Registered Traveler program say it is a tool to fight terrorists, the Transportation Security Administration and experts in the field say it can get people to the departure gate quicker but does not provide a security benefit in its current form.
Registered Traveler “has promise as an ID program,” said TSA spokeswoman Ellen Howe, but “. . . currently it is a convenience program that allows passengers who pay a fee and provide some personal data to cut to the front of the checkpoint security line. Because there is no additional security value to this program, it is not a priority for TSA.”
But leaders of the handful of companies that offer member identification cards say that, in addition to ease and improved identification, the program can enhance airline terrorism prevention.
“It is the exact same security check that’s used for those who are working on airplane engines or freight people on the tarmac, or those who work for the caterers,” said Steven Brill, CEO of Verified Identity Pass, which offers the Clear card.“TSA must do it for a reason.”
After submitting biometric identifiers, passing a background check and paying an annual $128 fee, cardholders are assisted through TSA security by Clear attendants in designated lanes who check travel documents and help load materials for screening.
There are 165,000 Clear cardholders and 18 airports where the cards are accepted. Membership has grown weekly by the thousands, according to Clear spokeswoman Cindy Rosenthal, and is expected to continue apace with the anticipated expansion to Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport and Los Angeles International Airport.
But because TSA, which regulates the program, rejects the private industry’s security claims, members still have to undergo the same level of scrutiny and material restrictions as regular airline passengers.
Harry Willis, a homeland security policy researcher at the Rand Corp., said that there are potential security benefits motivating programs like Registered Traveler and Global Entry, a new pilot program operated by Customs and Border Protection.
“If you register people as trusted travelers, there might be an opportunity to move people through [security] more quickly and in the case of an event, target your increased screening to those that you suspect are less secure,” Willis said. “It’s not profiling people into security, it’s profiling people out of security.”
Brill and others have envisioned extending trusted travelers benefits such as relaxed liquid restrictions, but Willis said the current vetting process is not enough to ease security inspections.
“Right now [the Registered Traveler program] has a very low level of security clearance,” he said. Such programs “represent the potential to increase security capability and reduce the burden on the common traveler, but it requires some consideration of the level of security clearance that people go through.”
TSA conducts a security threat assessment on all program applicants. Biographical information submitted is checked against several terrorism, law enforcement and immigration databases. Enrolled members continue to go through assessments and can be ousted if their security status changes.
Howe said that TSA conducts the background checks to prevent known terrorists from getting Registered Traveler cards, but critics say it doesn’t matter because members go through TSA security anyway.
“The background check isn’t necessary,” said Bruce Schneier, a security expert and chief technical security officer for BT Counterpane. “It doesn’t make sense in terms of the Clear program. . . . It has nothing to do with the airport. Why can’t I just go to the airport and pay $10 to go through the line faster?”
While the TSA and other security authorities believe Registered Traveler has a neutral effect on security, Schneier sees the potential for terrorists without a criminal background to exploit the pre-screening process.
“It’s a [$128] a year service that allows terrorists to see if the government is on to them,” Schneier said. “If you’re a terrorist cell, you have all your people apply for the Clear card. The ones that get it go on the mission, the ones that don’t know the police are onto them.”
Howe acknowledged that terrorists have been recruiting “clean-skinned people,” or those without a criminal record.
Some critics also believe the presence of biographical and biometric information in private hands could attract identity thieves. In addition to financial risk, some fear that a terrorist could assume a false identity to qualify for a registered Traveler card.
Brill rejected those fears.
“TSA cares about knowing and ensuring that they know who is getting on airplanes and that’s the one thing that Registered Traveler does that no one else does,” he said.
Brill said that a member’s identity is safer in the hands of Verified Identity Pass than with the government, arguing that “our privacy policies are much stricter. If we violate our privacy policies you can sue us. You don’t just write to your congressman, but you have a contract.”
Brill also boasted that after some minor modifications, the Clear card aims to be the first Real ID Act (108-458) compliant identification card, and could allow other security applications.
“The whole idea of starting a voluntary credentialing industry . . . is so that if the security threat our attention is suddenly on is sports arenas or subways, you could use that [credential] for some sort of access to that site,” he said.
But before that, Brill is hoping to ramp up measures that would hasten members’ path through security in the near future.
Although it failed two lab tests last year, Brill said a General Electric scanner that can check shoes while being worn is in the final stages of TSA approval.
And TSA said that a functioning shoe scanner would provide a “tangible security benefit.”
“If that if a viable shoe scanner comes to the market and we could deploy it, it would be great if the private sector and Registered Traveler money paid for that. . . . But it’s not there yet,” Howe said.
Brill also said he hopes the Global Entry Program, a Customs and Border Protection agency pilot program that would allow registered international travelers to bypass customs agents, to be integrated with the Registered Traveler program.
CBP “want[s] to work with us to combine, at least enrollment, in the two programs,” he said. “But also we have the equipment there anyway. I believe it will quickly become a combined program.”
Apart from the security controversy, some believe that the Registered Traveler program doesn’t provide any convenience apart from those offered to frequent flyers or first class travelers.
“We find no discernible benefit to the program that isn’t otherwise offered by the carriers without a fee,” said David A. Castelveter, spokesman for the Air Transport Association.
But Rosenthal said that, unlike the Clear program, frequent flyer lanes aren’t separate from other passengers and can’t guarantee security passage in five minutes or less.