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Biometrics offer travelers a deal: convenience and security in exchange for personal info

Clear, the biometrics-based security company, has sprung up in airports around the U.S. and is now making its way into rental cars.
Image: Travelers wait in line at Gatwick Airport in London on Dec. 20, 2018.
Travelers wait in line at Gatwick Airport in London on Dec. 20, 2018.Tim Ireland / AP

Holiday travelers facing long security lines and cumbersome check-ins are beginning to be offered an alternative: face and fingerprint scans.

Biometric technology is making its way into the travel industry with the consumer-friendly offer of convenience. But the technology is part of a growing security effort that has major privacy implications, and with companies moving quickly to offer the best experience, new questions are swirling around what biometrics could mean for customers going forward.

The most prevalent example comes from Clear, the biometrics-based security company that has sprung up in airports around the U.S., and is now making its way into rental cars.

“The consumer wanted more and wanted no friction, but at the same time, the world was demanding higher levels of security, more identify proofing, so we saw Clear as a solution,” Ken Cornick, co-founder and president of Clear, said.

Clear’s growth has been among the most visible, consumer-facing examples of the growing use of biometrics in the travel industry. This month at one of America’s busiest airports, Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta, Hertz Rental Cars partnered with Clear to introduce a member-only “Fast Lane” in which travelers can scan their fingerprints or use facial recognition in place of physical IDs to checkout cars.

Proponents say biometrics can reduce hour-long wait times to a matter of minutes and Hertz said customers who participate will “get through the exit gate and on the road in 30 seconds or less.” The program will be rolled out in 40 additional locations throughout 2019.

Cornick said that while some biometric technology has been around for years, the emergence of reliable facial recognition software along with the ubiquity of internet-connected cameras has given the technology new life.

“Facial [recognition] was not really spoken about in 2010, but now it’s all the rage,” Cornick said.Clear’s partnership marks the first use of biometrics by a major car rental company, but biometric security and check-in services are already showing up on cruise lines and in airports across the country and around the globe.

John S. Pistole, former administrator of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), said that biometrics offer a way to ensure security while also streamlining the traveler experience.

“In a post-9/11 world, no one wants to board a plane without security,” Pistole said. “Biometrics improve security, and when you couple that with the speed in which they help to check people in, it’s a strong tool.”

Pistole, who led the rollout of TSA PreCheck, which offers dedicated security lanes at certain airports for customers who participate in background checks, said that biometrics should remain optional for travelers — and noted that the convenience would be enough to gain traction.

“It just kind of incentivizes people to be more inclined to participate,” he said.

A rental car approaches a biometric scanning machine at the exit of the Hertz facility at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, in Atlanta on Dec. 7, 2018.Jeff Martin / AP

Pistole said it’s only a matter of time before biometrics are fully integrated into the total travel experience. Through services from Clear, TSA PreCheck and the Custom and Border Patrol’s Global Entry program, biometrics have already been introduced into security checkpoints and airline boarding processes in at least 15 U.S. airports to date. SITA, a technology company that focuses on air transportation, found that more than 60 percent of the world’s airports plan to invest in biometric ID technology in the next three years.

In September, Delta Airlines, which owns a 5 percent stake in Clear, announced that it’s launching America’s first air terminal to fully integrate biometric services at Atlanta International Airport, in partnership with Customs and Border Patrol and TSA.

As airlines and other travel companies are implementing the technology, the U.S. government is introducing new efforts of its own to streamline travel through biometrics. In October, TSA released the Biometrics Roadmap for Aviation Security and the Passenger Experience, which aims to “leverage biometric solutions,” particularly facial recognition technology, to increase security effectiveness and modernize the passenger experience.

In September, photos also became a requirement for TSA PreCheck enrollment — the administration will use the images it collects to test facial biometric technology in select airports.

As the technology becomes more pervasive, people may feel increasingly inclined to turn over their personal physical information to maximize convenience, even as there are no federal laws in place governing the technology.

“Biometrics can be the gold standard of ID management, assuming they are collected properly, stored securely and utilized in a timely manner,” Pistole said. “As far as usage or acceptance, it's an individual preference based on their views of security versus privacy.”

Privacy experts warn that the nascent technology raises significant security concerns, particularly around identity theft.

“You can’t change your fingerprint, or your iris, or your face, the way you can change your social security number or phone number, once it’s compromised,” Jay Stanley a senior policy analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union, said.

Stanley said that the sort of intimate data that biometric tools collect becomes a honeypot for hackers and the unique identifiers can be used to track people and merge information about various parts of their lives into broader visions of how they live. Such information can be abused to manipulate individuals or extract money from them.

“In a just world, we should be able to have both that convenience and the confidence that the information won’t be misused, but we are just not there yet,” Stanley said.

Cornick said that ensuring its customers’ security is a key part of Clear’s business and that it complies with federal standards for data management.

“We meet the highest level of data security and cybersecurity requirements, and it’s really in that combination of control policies and procedures that we focus so much time on,” Cornick said.

Cornick said he hoped to build Clear into a familiar and ubiquitous security system, equating it to other franchises that offer consumers with a consistent product.

“You go to Starbucks and you have basically the same experience no matter what city,” Cornick said.

Pistole said biometrics will become more popular as “the art and science” around the technology continues to improve. But he also maintained that it can’t be an exclusive system and travelers should also have access to alternative verification options.

“It’s a good tool in terms of expediting travel, but it’s not a perfect system,” he said. “So we’ll always need a backup system or some sort of redundancy in place.”