Clear Faces More Scrutiny With Added Airport Incidents

Federal security officials this week ordered Clear Secure Inc. to increase the number of customers receiving additional vetting at US airports as more details emerged of security incidents connected to the line-expediting company’s practices.

(Bloomberg) — Federal security officials this week ordered Clear Secure Inc. to increase the number of customers receiving additional vetting at US airports as more details emerged of security incidents connected to the line-expediting company’s practices.

The Transportation Security Administration on Tuesday mandated that a greater percentage of Clear subscribers undergo a review of their identification documents by a TSA agent before they can enter the airport screening lanes, according to a person familiar with the action who asked not to be named discussing the security-sensitive subject. 

In addition to the case reported last month by Bloomberg News of a Clear customer arrested in 2022 for attempting to carry ammunition onto a flight while using a false name, the TSA has concluded at least two other lapses occurred in which Clear employees allowed people to skirt the rigid identity-check requirements imposed by the agency, said the person. 

Clear confirmed its employees violated its security rules in the incidents without providing details. The company didn’t respond to questions about TSA’s additional checks of its customers.

Shares of New York City-based Clear dropped 4.3% after the close of regular trading in New York. The stock has declined 16.3% this year.

In one instance in March at Los Angeles International Airport, a person was allowed through to TSA’s security checkpoint via the Clear line using a boarding pass found in a trash bin, the person said. Not only was the would-be flier’s identity not verified against details on the boarding pass, the individual wasn’t even a member of Clear, the person said. 

While TSA has demanded an unspecified increase in scrutiny of Clear customers and the company has aggressively defended its current security systems, a lawmaker who’s been critical about Clear’s security controls said the TSA needs to dramatically ramp up its oversight. 

“After being briefed that there have been multiple security breaches over the past year due to Clear’s lax security controls, it is apparent that our aviation system faces unnecessary risk until TSA acts to completely close these vulnerabilities and ensure all travelers’ identities are verified by TSA in real time,” said Representative Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, the senior Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee. “There is no need for any additional delay.”

A US Senate committee is also pushing for extra scrutiny of Clear. The Appropriations Committee on July 27 said in language accompanying a spending bill that it “strongly encourages” the TSA to separately verify the identities of all Clear customers as they enter the government screening lanes. 

Clear said in an emailed statement that two employees had violated the company’s “strict protocols” by bringing travelers to TSA lines without properly verifying them. 

“We take our responsibility to airport security seriously – which is why we took immediate action, terminating the responsible employees, their managers and retraining each location’s ambassadors,” the company said. 

Clear has said incidents have been isolated and do not reflect the company’s high standards. “Clear enhances homeland security with a stellar security track record,” Chief Executive Officer Caryn Seidman-Becker said on a quarterly conference call on Aug. 2. “We have biometrically verified over 130 million passengers since our founding in 2010.”

Clear customers, who generally pay $189 a year, are escorted by company employees to the front of security lines leading to TSA screening portals after verifying their identities with iris scans or fingerprints. The company typically pays airports a fee to operate. TSA doesn’t directly regulate the company, but can impose security standards on the company’s airport and airline partners. 

The recent incidents and a TSA review of Clear’s practices have raised alarms in the past year. More scrutiny of Clear customers could undercut its business proposition of helping people speed through airport lines. 

TSA last year raised concerns about almost 49,000 Clear customers who had been signed up despite failing an automated match against their photo identifications during enrollment. Clear said it altered its process for enrollment after questions were raised by TSA, requiring any of the group who wish to travel to be reverified. 

TSA has invested over $100 million in recent years to improve how it verifies passengers’ identities — a critical aspect of ensuring terrorists can’t gain access to flights. Clear customers are the only travelers eligible to bypass the TSA’s Credential Authentication Technology system that helps screeners validate IDs and performs checks against terrorist watch lists. 

TSA said in a letter to Clear in June that it intended to require all Clear customers be verified with its CAT system by the end of July, but has since dropped that deadline. The agency said it is evaluating comments on the plan. 

“Accurate and reliable verification of passenger identity is foundational to aviation security and effective screening by TSA,” the agency said in a statement Tuesday. 

Both newly discovered security incidents involving Clear, some details of which were previously reported by Politico, involved people who shouldn’t have been allowed into the so-called sterile area of the airport, said the person briefed on the TSA’s findings.

In the Los Angeles case, a would-be traveler was arrested after trying to take a flight using a discarded boarding pass they had found in the public area of the airport, the person familiar said.

The traveler, who had been escorted to the security checkpoint by a Clear employee, was even able to use TSA’s PreCheck screening lane, apparently because it was stamped on the misappropriated boarding pass. PreCheck is reserved for people who have agreed to undergo government background checks in exchange for slightly less rigorous security measures. 

In a second case last January in Birmingham, Alabama, a traveler went to the airport without realizing they had a boarding pass for a flight originating from another airport. Despite the fact that Clear employees are supposed to verify boarding passes, the individual was escorted to TSA security, according to the person familiar. 

Only after reaching the secure area and being unable to find their flight did the person realize the error. 

Because TSA has traditionally relied on Clear to verify flyers’ identities and flight itineraries, the agency would have had no way of determining they didn’t have proper documentation without conducting additional checks.  

New information has also emerged about the incident that triggered TSA’s review of Clear practices last year. 

In that case on July 27, 2022, Kenneth Cooke, 30, of Florida, was arrested at Reagan National Airport near Washington, DC, after TSA screeners found he was carrying seven rounds of 9 millimeter ammunition in carry-on luggage, according to court records. 

Cooke was enrolled in Clear and had been escorted to the TSA checkpoint by the company without having to produce a driver’s license or other form of identification after using Clear’s processes. Only after being questioned by police did authorities determine he’d enrolled earlier using a fake ID, people familiar with the incident told Bloomberg News. 

Cooke told airport police he had a firearms license in Florida, according to court records. When told by police he was going to be arrested for illegally possessing ammunition with a criminal record, he then said the ID was not his. He gave “a couple of different names,” according to a court record. 

Cooke agreed to plead guilty and his case could be concluded at a hearing in October, according to the records. 

Cooke didn’t respond to requests for comment through his lawyer. 

–With assistance from Jack Fitzpatrick.

(Corrects description of incidents in headline and 19th paragraph of story originally published Aug. 10.)

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