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Clear vs. TSA PreCheck: Cost, privacy difference for airport security?

With air travel returning to pre-pandemic highs, you might be tempted to pay for a service that lets you skip the security line.

Clear fits the bill: The $189-per-year subscription lets you walk straight to the front. Just make sure you read the fine print.

Airport security is, by nature, at odds with individual privacy. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has been criticized for unfairly picking out Middle Eastern travelers and trans people, and now it’s in the spotlight again for expanding its controversial facial-scanning program. Clear, which says it has more than 16 million members accounting for 10 percent of travelers at the airports where it operates, works like the TSA’s PreCheck program by letting subscribers move through security quicker. But the service comes with some concerns for consumers.

Clear collects biometrics and health details such as your vaccine status to perform its services. It also forces customers to sign an agreement that prohibits them from suing the company in court or joining a class-action lawsuit.

Are the benefits of Clear worth the costs? How does it stack up to other timesaving measures? Here’s what The Washington Post Help Desk found:

How does Clear compare to TSA PreCheck?

Like TSA PreCheck and Global Entry, Clear makes wait times at airports shorter by ushering paying customers past long security lines. It’s available at around 50 airports, listed here.

Clear has two offerings for air travelers: Plus and Reserve. With Plus, you pay $189 per year to verify your identity at the airport with biometrics such as your iris or fingerprint instead of waiting for a TSA agent to scan your ID. Plus subscribers check in at a separate Clear kiosk then walk to the front of the security line for physical scanning. (Although after a July 2022 security incident prompted an advisory letter from the TSA to Clear and its partner airports, more Clear subscribers are subject to random ID checks from TSA employees.)

If you pay for Plus, children under 18 can accompany you at no cost, and you can add up to three adult friends or family members to your account for $70 each per year.

Clear’s Reserve tier is free — you just claim a spot online or in Clear’s app by providing your departing airport, flight information and the approximate time you’ll show up. Upon arrival, you’ll head straight to a designated checkpoint and scan a QR code on your phone to skip the general security line. A TSA agent will still check your ID. There are 18 participating airports in the United States, Canada and Europe.

PreCheck, for its part, is a program run by the TSA under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). PreCheck is available at 200 airports, and 88 percent of members waited less than five minutes to pass through security as of June 2023, according to the TSA’s website. There are about 34 million people qualified to use PreCheck lines, including active duty military and members of other DHS Trusted Traveler programs, TSA spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said. That number has more than tripled since 2016, Farbstein said.

PreCheck costs $78 every five years and requires an application, background check, fingerprints and an in-person interview. PreCheck customers get their own designated line, which tends to move faster than the general checkpoints because they don’t have to remove their shoes, belts or electronics.

You can be a member of Clear and PreCheck at the same time for an even speedier airport experience, though this hack won’t work if too many people sign up.

Why are people concerned about airport biometrics?

Compared to other forms of data collection, biometrics such as facial, iris and thumbprint scans have greater potential for invasive surveillance or discrimination, privacy advocates say. Facial recognition, for instance, makes it difficult to protect your privacy in public spaces — law enforcement has already used it to identify protesters such as one man accused of assaulting a police officer during a racial justice demonstration in 2020. And the technology isn’t always trustworthy, particularly when identifying racial minorities. At least three Black men in the United States have filed lawsuits alleging wrongful arrests due to faulty facial recognition.

Facial recognition at airports arguably comes with fewer risks than facial scanning during job interviews or criminal investigations. Both Clear and the TSA say they’re not using your biometrics for purposes other than running and evaluating their programs.

But civil rights experts warn against normalizing the use of facial scanning, especially by the federal government. Others have criticized the TSA for not clearly communicating the rules around facial scanning. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) told The Post that when he tried to opt out of a voluntary TSA facial scan, he was told that doing so would cause a significant delay for himself and other travelers.

TSA quietly rolled out facial recognition technology at over a dozen airports across the country. Tech columnist Geoffrey Fowler shares what to expect. (Video: Monica Rodman/The Washington Post)

How do Clear’s privacy practices stack up?

Clear collects some potentially sensitive data from its customers, including iris and fingerprint images that identify you. It also stores your vaccine status or coronavirus test results if you opt into its Health Pass feature.

Clear never shares your biometrics with outside companies, spokeswoman Annabel Walsh said. It also doesn’t share data or inferences about your health, finances or behavior with outside marketing or advertising companies, she said. When Clear does share data outside the company, it requires its partners to sign contracts promising to only use your information to perform services for Clear, Walsh added.

While Clear stores your data indefinitely, it accepts data deletion requests from consumers even if they live in states without privacy laws, Walsh said.

Clear’s privacy practices seem better than many. But any time you trust a company or the government with your data, you risk security breaches and potential misuse.

What legal caveats am I agreeing to by signing up for Clear?

Clear subscribers sign member agreements that include important legal fine print. By signing, you waive your right to sue the company in court or enter a class-action lawsuit — even if Clear violated its privacy promises or other terms.

This carve out — known by critics as a “forced arbitration clause” — isn’t unique to Clear. But it’s worth a raised eyebrow, said Deborah Hensler, a professor at Stanford Law School who teaches courses on arbitration law. By compelling unhappy or wronged customers to deal with an arbiter rather than a traditional judge or jury, the company puts itself at an automatic advantage should something go wrong, she said.

“You and I as consumers didn’t negotiate this clause,” Hensler said, “and ordinary people don’t know what it means.”

Companies invented arbitration clauses to keep disputes with customers or employees out of the courts, Hensler said. As litigation against companies became increasingly common in the early 2000s, companies started throwing in bans on class-action suits as well. While many other countries disallowed the practice, U.S. courts let corporations continue with so-called forced arbitration.

“This is common practice among companies providing consumer services,” Clear’s Walsh said. “Disputes are few and far between, and when they do happen, we try to resolve them on an individual basis.”

Hensler said she has signed a handful of non-arbitration clauses in her dealings with service companies — after all, the terms for consumers are to “take it or leave it.” But it’s worth a careful read and extra consideration, especially when you’re signing up with a company that collects biometrics or other sensitive data.

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