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.