Now that airports are emptier than they’ve ever been, the air travel security platform Clear is adapting its technology for new pandemic-centric purposes. On Thursday, the NHL announced that it would be using the tech to screen players and staff during the playoffs, and earlier this month, the employees of the 9/11 Memorial & Museum started using the screening platform to allow staff back onsite. The new moves are a sign that Clear wants to use its tech to get people back to work — and back to big events.
The basic premise is that regular screenings using a new Clear service called Health Pass can keep people who might have Covid-19 out of high-traffic spaces. Basically, its approach involves using new systems that can quickly identify whether someone might have Covid-19. Right now, that process could include a daily health quiz, temperature scans, and linking users to their lab results — while also confirming their identity through biometrics, which can include iris and fingerprint scans as well as facial recognition. The concept has already drawn skepticism from public health and privacy experts.
This new line of business represents a pivot for Clear, which is best known as the company that offers paid memberships to bypass airport security lines. While everyone else is stuck in the slow line waiting to speak to a TSA agent to check their travel documents and confirm their identity, Clear members can bypass the line and speed straight to the baggage screening. That’s because in addition to paying Clear’s membership fee, customers have volunteered more of their personal information, mainly their biometric data, to help airport security quickly confirm their identity at the airport. Importantly, while Clear’s technology has been certified by the Department of Homeland Security, it is not the same as the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) Pre-Check. However, as Clear is quick to point out on its website, fliers can purchase both.
Clear isn’t the only company pushing futuristic, sometimes questionable technology meant to help us return to some sense of normal. Universities have urged students to promise that they’ll download health screening apps. Facial recognition technology companies have pushed versions of their tech that, for instance, incorporate “fever-detection.” Some have even floated artificial intelligence-enabled cameras that can measure how well people are social distancing.
But Clear stands out as an established brand that’s become a familiar sight at airport security checkpoints and already has quite a few customers. The company claims that it has confirmed identities more than 50 million times since it relaunched in 2010. At that time, Clear had been acquired out of bankruptcy but was already operating in at least 16 airports. Now, Clear technology is used in more than 50 airports, as well as other large venues including sports stadiums like the AT&T Center in San Antonio and the American Airlines Arena in Miami.
While the venue expansion started a few years ago, Clear announced its Health Pass program in May and now has its sights set on a number of new partners, including restaurants. Clear Health Pass is being used to screen food service employees — keeping potentially sick people from returning to shared work areas — through partnerships with the restaurant group that runs the salad chain Chopt and the taco restaurant Dos Toros, through which Clear is currently running pilots at two locations. Clear’s health screening tech is also being used by the 450 staff members of the 9/11 Memorial & Museum, which is currently using the platform’s health quiz.
The company’s new partnership with the NHL will mean its Health Pass system will be used to coordinate this season’s playoffs in Edmonton and Toronto, Canada. According to the company, the system will help track about 3,000 people who are involved, including players, coaches, and support staff. In total, 24 teams, including the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Chicago Blackhawks, are expected to play. Their announcement comes as other organizations, like the NBA, and large venues, like Disney World, turn to other health safety initiatives in an effort to restart their activities.
In the case of the NHL, the idea isn’t just to do screenings but to create closed mini-ecosystems of secured areas. In each city where there are games, there will be at least 30 physical access points that are managed with kiosks that will take temperatures. After registering their identity within Clear’s biometric system, those involved in the playoffs will be expected to fill out a regular health survey after leaving hotel rooms, take a selfie with their phone to confirm their identity, and then use a QR code to register their information at the kiosk and have their temperature taken.
While the company’s current offering seems more limited to health quizzes and temperature checks, Clear appears to be setting the groundwork for including more detailed medical information in its screening process down the line. On its website, the company advertises that the “possibilities are endless,” and hints that “vaccine status” could one day be incorporated, seemingly echoing contentious proposals for immunity passports that the World Health Organization has warned against.
Unsurprisingly, privacy advocates are skeptical of the new Clear Health Pass, which they argue doesn't really solve the problem of keeping an area free of infectious people. If anything, they say, the service introduces a host of privacy concerns. They worry that deploying this Health Pass in a wide range of venues could facilitate unwanted surveillance and become a ubiquitous part of life.
“Forcing someone to upload extensive medical information to a privately run centralized database that’s then going to decide whether or not they can enter public accommodations or potentially go to work or find a plane, that’s really a nightmare scenario,” John Davisson, an attorney at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, told Recode.
Kenneth Goodman, the director of the University of Miami’s Institute for Bioethics and Health Policy warns that a program like Clear’s Health Pass could become a form of “security theater.”
“What exactly is any company going to do to ensure that people who get through security, come to the party, get on the plane, go to the restaurant, are actually free of the virus?” Goodman said. “The idea that fever detection or a quiz — which of course you could lie to — is going to improve our safety on the streets or at airports or stadiums or anywhere else is so far not particularly based on solid, peer-reviewed evidence.”
Albert Fox Cahn, the executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, called Health Pass an “absolutely horrifying product.” He points out that Clear’s ultimate goal seems to be based on the assumption that people have access to regular testing, which is a questionable premise in the United States. Also, public health experts still don’t have a full understanding of how Covid-19 immunity works or how antibody tests should be factored into the equation.
“After 9/11, we passed emergency surveillance powers, and we were told, ‘don’t worry, they’re going to go away in a few years,’” Fox Cahn told Recode. “As of this year, we’re still debating whether to renew them. We have to assume that any surveillance infrastructure we build to respond to this crisis will become a permanent facet of American life.”
Lawmakers are also worried about what Clear’s doing. In May, Sens. Jeff Merkley and Cory Booker, who have called for regulating facial recognition, sent a letter to Clear demanding more information on its pandemic-related business plans, pointing to the Health Pass in particular. The senators specifically warned that “facial recognition technology risks a state of undetectable, constant government surveillance that can track one’s movements and associations with organizations such as schools and places of worship.” They also expressed concern about algorithmic bias, which could make Clear inaccessible to some users.
In a June reply to the letter from Sens. Merkley and Booker, Clear chief executive Caryn Seidman-Becker wrote, “We do not conduct passive monitoring and we do not collect images of non-members.” She also emphasized the opt-in nature of Clear’s system as well as the company’s commitment to security. With regard to Health Pass, she said “biometric data is not shared with employers or venues, and our biometric tools are not themselves used as diagnostic tools.” Seidman-Becker also said that her company considers “racial and gender equitability” when choosing their facial recognition algorithms, which Clear purchases from third-party providers.
A Clear spokesperson told Recode that police and governmental agencies can’t access the data it oversees and that Clear would not share personal information about its members.
At the same time, Clear seems to be eager to become the technology platform that allows places to reopen, both for the short and long haul. Despite the concerns of privacy advocates who doubt the service’s utility and privacy protections, the new Health Pass system is winning big clients, like the NHL. And as the pressure to return to normal life continues, who knows where you might run into Clear technology next.
Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists.