We Finally Know Why The TSA Is Cracking Down On CLEAR At Airport Security

CLEAR is a paid program that takes your biometrics and expedites security screening, mostly at airports. They are part-owned by Delta and United, and have a partnership with American Express.

Since you go through a biometric ID check, you usually don’t have to show ID at the security checkpoint, although you randomly are asked to do so. I get my CLEAR membership reimbursed by my American Express Platinum card. I have had to show ID frequently anyway (‘randomly flagged’). But it’s very useful to skip to the front of the security line, whether the front of the PreCheck line if you have PreCheck or the front of the regular line if you don’t, in the airports that they operate.

The TSA has been working to end the ‘skip showing ID’ process for people identified through CLEAR, citing a security incident last year. They wouldn’t end skipping security lines, just not showing ID which is something you can’t always count on now to begin with.

And we finally know what happened.

Clear’s methods determined its facial-recognition system to enroll new members was vulnerable to abuse, said people familiar with the review, who asked not to be identified discussing security-sensitive information.

The computer-generated photos of prospective customers at times captured blurry images that only showed chins and foreheads, or faces obscured by surgical masks and hoodies.

The process — which allowed Clear employees to manually verify prospective customers’ identities after its facial recognition system raised flags — created the potential for human error.

Apparently last July “a man slipped through Clear’s screening lines at Reagan National Airport near Washington, before a government scan detected ammunition — which is banned in the cabin — in his possession.” And he’d “almost managed to board a flight under a false identity.” The TSA checkpoint found the ammunition, which is what it is supposed to do. This had nothing to do with his identity. There’s no suggestion that the passenger intended to do anything nefarious.

Apparently “almost 49,000 Clear customers…were enrolled despite facial-recognition software flagging them as non-matches,” and determined that government ID checks are better even though they keep getting ID validity wrong too. CLEAR says all of those individuals “were also manually verified by at least two Clear employees” and that only 1% of CLEAR airport customers were involved. They no longer allow employees to verify identities, and everyone involved has to get their biometrics re-validated.

In fact, CLEAR tells me “In the last six months alone, the TSA has reverified 4.7 million IDs without citing a single issue.”

After this one incident, TSA had demanded that everyone going through CLEAR have their IDs checked starting by the end of July, but that has been pushed back.

Showing ID’s began as a ‘do something’ response to TWA 800 when people speculated that was a terrorist action rather than an accident.

The government wants to positively identify people because without that their screening databases (No Fly List and extra screening) aren’t useful. They’re questionable anyway.

Because IDs are so foundational to the whole process, in 2005 Congress passed requirements for IDs that are harder to fake. The can has consistently been kicked down the road, most recently to May 2025. It’s not even clear that there’s any legal requirement to show ID in order to fly, however. The TSA simply imposes the rule on its own, without obvious legal basis.

And No Fly Lists include people added by mistake (FBI agent checking the wrong box on a form or having a name similar to someone else) and even added maliciously (such as retaliation for refusing to cooperate in an investigation).

Ironically TSA has had numerous issues identifying passengers, or failing to identify passengers. And no punitive action is taken against TSA! After all they are both the security regulator and service provider. They regulate themselves. And their own inspector general has on numerous occasions actually found 90% or more of dangerous items making it through checkpoints undetected, while the agency once admitted in court documents that were mistakenly unsealed that they knew of no actual threats against U.S. aviation. That was, to the agency, the most dangerous admission because we’re supposed to assume that there are constant threats which are only unsuccessful because of the agency’s efforts.

There’s been a lot of speculation that the requirement to show ID somehow undermines the usefulness of CLEAR. But maybe not showing ID is an ancillary benefit at best to the customer, even if it’s how the program is sold. We pretend it’s about identity verification when really it’s about priority in getting through security faster. It still does that. The usefulness of the service would change not at all.

(HT: @crucker)

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. As I’m someone that “may” look to get back into being a business and leisure traveler in less than 3 years from now, I couldn’t help but delve into the eye-opening article about the TSA’s recent crackdown on CLEAR at airport security. View From The Wing has provided an insightful piece that sheds light on the reasons behind this development, and I must say, it’s an essential read for anyone who values convenience and efficiency during air travel.

    The first thing that struck me was the discussion surrounding the privacy concerns associated with biometric data collection. CLEAR’s use of fingerprints and facial recognition technology to expedite the security screening process has raised valid questions about data security and potential misuse. While convenience is a top priority for travelers, it should never come at the cost of compromising our personal information. Striking a balance between convenience and privacy is crucial.

    Moreover, this highlights how the proliferation of CLEAR lanes could lead to congestion and longer wait times for regular passengers. This is a point that resonates with many travelers who have witnessed the disparity in security lines.

    Additionally, the discussion on TSA PreCheck integration and the perceived dilution of its benefits was an eye-opener. While PreCheck was initially introduced to provide an expedited screening process for trusted travelers, the integration with CLEAR might have inadvertently caused a decline in the special treatment experienced by PreCheck members. By examining the implications of this integration, we can identify areas for improvement and aim to restore the value of the PreCheck program.

    It’s essential for us, as travelers, to stay informed about such changes in airport security protocols. Understanding the rationale behind the TSA’s actions empowers us to engage in constructive discussions and offer valuable feedback to improve the travel experience for everyone.

    I appreciate View From The Wing for sharing this informative piece. It has opened my eyes to the various facets of the CLEAR crackdown and the complex considerations involved in enhancing airport security. Let’s hope that the TSA continues to make thoughtful decisions that strike the right balance between convenience, privacy, and security for all travelers.

  2. I always thought it was weird that a for-profit employee ‘clears’ me and simply escorts me to the TSA agent and says I’m good to go. It seems to be too easy for something to slip through the cracks, even if not on purpose.

    As for Clear itself… it depends. Some airports, like Denver, the Clear line actually takes LONGER, as in 2x times longer than TSA and since the barriers are solid, it’s very socially impolite to jump them when you see people in the regular TSA line breeze right by you. But that didn’t stop at least one guy who was so visibly upset that he finally just went backwards and jumped into the TSA line.

    Meanwhile, some airports with Clear are awesome, and saved me a ton of time in Cincinnati recently… CVG has the ‘nuclear bomb’ luggage scanners (they have a huge round bulge in the middle of the scanner), and they take forever, so the TSA line was backed up but Clear was wide open. MSP has clear too, but I have found the regular TSA line is never really that bad

  3. My biggest gripe with CLEAR is it is “For Profit”. They should pay TSA costs for an exclusive gate at any airport they use.

    JFK is especially horrible in the evening. TSA closes pre check at 8 PM then funnels pre check and clear through the same area with clear constantly pushing in front of others. When you pay for HE or PCk then clear should not have a higher priority unless they have an exclusive gate.

    I’ve had CLEAR, both as complimentary and paid. Just wasn’t worth much for where I travel.

  4. I have Clear because United pays for it, but I don’t think I’d pay for it myself. There have occasionally been situations where it has really saved me time, but now that all DL Diamonds and UA 1Ks have it, the Clear lines at their hubs are often longer than PreCheck. As such I often find myself skipping the Clear line altogether.

  5. DHS/TSA wants to move as many travelers as possible to have the TSA’s ID+PreCheck-HaraSSSSment spectrum social scoring-hit pop up for TSA at the airport by TSA doing a live or near-live check using just the presented ID at the travel document check step for the airport passenger security screening checkpoint. CLEAR’s “no need to (generally) present physical ID documents after initial enrollment” at the TDC sort of gets in the way of that. Also, the government power apologists want a more real time way to hit people with haraSSSSment flags or even do the PreCheck thing so they can claim “this is random” at the checkpoint.

    When people have a goal in mind, they find or create a problem to pursue the pre-desired solution. There is a bit of this and then some in what DHS and its fanboys do.

  6. TSA doesn’t require anyone to have ID to fly, so I’m not sure why you’re saying they do. You are just going to get extra screening if you don’t have ID.

    And you’re outdoing yourself today, can’t even get your article TITLE right!

  7. IMO not having to take my ID out of my wallet was a benefit of having Clear. It’s one less step and one less chance to lose something out of my wallet.

    Adding to ID check slows down processing of Clear passengers. It’s much more likely that the TSA agent only passes one Clear passenger before processing the next non-Clear Pre-Check customer, where in the past they might have let all the Clear passengers who were verified through.

    Truly what purpose does the ID check of Clear customers serve? The passenger gets the exact same TSA screening that ever PreCheck customer gets. So if the screening is trusted, even if there were an ID mismatch, no prohibited items are getting through. Clear has already re-enrolled every customer since the initial issue – I had to redo my biometrics sometime in the last year, and I believe everyone had to. So TSA ought to decide – either they trust that Clear screening works, or why have the program at all? If it works and they want to do 5% or 10% ID screening, fine. But to check every ID is really insanity and then why even offer Clear at all?

  8. TSA requires passenger identification for passengers to clear the passenger security screening checkpoints. While it doesn’t necessarily mean having to show a physical identification document to TSA to be able to fly on common carrier flights, what do you think happens if an adult US citizen shows up at the TSA screening checkpoint without any physical identification document in hand and has been living more or less off the grid in the US with even regard to mail?

    Identification requirements facilitate mass surveillance. While you might not mind if being done by your own government, what about when the same info or means are used by other governments, company agents or other parties to follow you and perhaps even share their findings with others?

  9. We have an open border policy with 9 million permanent visitors we do not know who are free to go anywhere and do anything with zero consequence . But Clear is the problem. Sure, Jan.

  10. “what do you think happens if an adult US citizen shows up at the TSA screening checkpoint without any physical identification document in hand and has been living more or less off the grid in the US with even regard to mail?”

    I don’t know, what happens?

    The TSA has specifically told a court that there is no requirement for ID to fly.

  11. It sucks that I pay for Clear and their employees aggressively try to get folks to try it for free. They getting people to try that never fly and a very GOOD chance that the return airport will not even have CLEAR. It clogs up the process for paying customers

  12. So, set it in the machine to fingerprints only. Problem solved.

    And the sort of people who go berserk about having their fingerprint stored are probably not great customers anyway….

  13. My daughter left her wallet at home. Her wallet contained her driver license and her Nexus card. So, no photo ID. She still was able to pass TSA with alternative ID methods and make her flight.

  14. I’m genuinely perplexed by the comment “images that only showed chins and foreheads, or faces obscured by surgical masks and hoodies.” My experiences with Clear have always involved a retinal scan. Is that not how they identify me?

  15. I had Clear for two years for both my wife and me. About 50 percent of the time they could not validate me via biometrics and 100 percent of the time they could not validate my wife’s. As a result using it slowed us down rather than sped us up, so we dropped it.

  16. Holding up my smart phone’s digital copy of my boarding pass in one hand, and my govt. issued photo I.D. is not a deal breaker, considering I get to bypass a long line at TSAPre – I’m game! The TSAPre officer (contracted agency SFO) isn’t running my I.D. through an ADDITIONAL screening; then it means the Clear process is working.

    Addressing the biometrics… if there was a problem with a mask or blurry photos when the customer enrolled that falls back on the enrollment and not current travel date.

  17. I’d be OK with increased ID requirements if TSA could drop the boarding pass requirement. The glance at a phone screen without scanning the barcode is hardly a security measure, and just slows down the X-ray line as I have to unzip my bag to put my phone back in it.

  18. My wife signed up for CLEAR twice and they screwed up her paperwork so bad that she gave up trying to use them. Personally I see no reason to pay for this at all. Anyway, you can be sure biometric data on Americans is well established. Just got off a cruise ship where they used it to get back into the U.S. The big sign said that Customs & Border Protection (a nasty organization with police power that goes 100 miles deep from any frontier, land or sea) only keeps the pictures for 12 hours. Anyone want to bet there isn’t a back up “somewhere”.

  19. Apparently, the two new 50,000-square-foot security checkpoint buildings TSA DCA got opened in November 2021 was ineffective in July 2022, less than a year later.

    I have to use CLEAR because somehow I checked the wrong box on the pre-check app and can’t get it. CLEAR helps me when the general line is super-long. In fact, this year at DCA, I checked my bags later than recommended although before the cutoff and the counter agent was a little nervous about my late timing, but I assured her that I could get through TSA quickly with CLEAR. I did get through CLEAR in about three minutes, but then there was like a barely moving fifteen-minute line at the X-Ray machine, yet I still was able to get to my flight while it was in the middle of boarding.

    So weird, but I don’t know what else to do.

  20. As a frequent business traveler, having both TSA pre-check and Clear is a massive time saver and headache reducer for me. In the past dozen trips I’ve made, only once did I experience a longer wait than the pre-check or standard lines and that was due to an unruly traveler holding things up.

    Usually I find the Clear lines to be significantly shorter (3-5 people ahead) over the pre-check (10-12 people but could get up to 20-30+ quick at some spots like Denver or Seattle), which are both leaps and bounds above the standard where the lines can be up to 100+.

    I value my personal space. It’s bad enough I’m going to be stuck sitting next to strangers inches away for hours at a time, I don’t want to wait an hour stuck in a cattle line with people bumping into me, breathing down my neck, or shouting at their phones (on speaker of course) inches away from my ear before I even board the flight (staring hard at O’Hare Int right now. You know how bad y’all are).

    I would love if the industry as a whole just fixed the system and updated to accommodate all travelers in an expeditious manner (Yeah, right. Like that’ll ever happen here in the US) but until that happens, I’m going to continue paying for any and all shortcuts I can get. If Clear gets saturated and they introduce Clear ++ Max Elite for $500 a year that lets me skip the “standard” lines? I would sadly get it it as no one wants to be crammed in a compressed capsule for hours at a time with people already having a bad day to begin with. No need to start the voyage on a bad note, exhausted by being treated like cattle. I still think having to pay for the “privilege” of being treated like every traveler was pre 9/11 is offensive but these are the options we have and sadly I have to grin and bear it.

    If we had high speed trains, I would travel that way exclusively and avoid airports entirely (except for international trips, or to Hawaii, Alaska, Guam, etc). Makes you wonder if the airlines are greasing palms to slow the development of nationwide high speed rail. Someone has to be, the nations of Europe and Asia have proven it works and is more cost efficient than our system with all of the subsidies we give these airlines just to keep them operational.

  21. Clear is a scam to simply jump in front of the already short TSA pre check line. It costs ~10x more than TSA precheck and still requires the individual to acquire TSA precheck. Its a perfect example of private entities (including the airports) gaming a government mandated program while not providing any true advantage to the individual. It should be banned.

  22. Somehow in Australia we survive without requiring ID to fly domestically, no liquid restrictions (domestic), don’t have to take your shoes off at security, and many X-ray machines don’t require you to remove laptops from bags. Just goes to show how much of it is unnecessary security for the sake of it or a jobs program for the otherwise unemployable.

  23. Andy: “Somehow in Australia we survive without requiring ID to fly domestically, no liquid restrictions (domestic), don’t have to take your shoes off at security, and many X-ray machines don’t require you to remove laptops from bags.”

    The US still has the liquid restrictions but you don’t have to take off your shoes (unless they have metal like steel-toe boots, metal eyelets, etc) anymore. I’ve only had to take my tech kit out of my bag on one trip (out of 20+) in the last 2 years and it was only in Charlotte, NC so it seems like a policy only certain airports still enforce. Very weird though for sure. A lot of it is certainly just “security theater” but I think that’s by design.

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