By Harry McCracken | Tuesday, August 5, 2008 at 7:42 pm
Here’s yet another airport security tale that would be perversely funny if our safety wasn’t at stake: A laptop containing personal information on 33,000 travelers who are members of the Clear program for expedited security-line service went missing at San Francisco’s SFO airport last week. The latest word is that it’s mysteriously reappeared in the same locked office that it vanished from.
I’m not sure if that sounds more like a high-tech Harry Houdini trick or the plot of a novel that Agatha Christie would write if she were still with us; I do know that it’s pretty dang unsettling on multiple levels.
Clear members go through extensive screening (and pay a $128 fee) in order to skip normal airport security procedures; if this were a movie, the laptop would have ended up in the hands of some terrorist organization, which would use it to steal those travelers’ identities and send armies of fanatics onto the nation’s planes. But a spokeswoman for Verified Identity Pass, the company behind Clear, told the San Francisco Chronicle that there’s no reason to panic: The laptop contained info such as names, addresses, and birthdates, not biometric stuff like fingerprints. While it wasn’t encrypted as TSA regulations mandate–oops!–it was protected with two levels of passwords. And a preliminary inspection indicates that the data wasn’t compromised.
Then again, the TSA has told Clear that it can’t register any new members until it gets its act together, but the enrollment page on Clear’s Website merely states that they’re “currently updating our software and are unable to process enrollments at this time.” I’m not sure if Clear is skirting around the truth or what, but if that’s a reference to what’s going on, it borders on a bald-faced lie. Which is not something you want to hear from a company that’s involved with airport security.
And the privacy page at the Clear site refers to “a comprehensive information security program to ensure the privacy of Clear applicants and members as well as the integrity of our systems” that’s impossible to reconcile with a laptop full of unencrypted data apparently sneaking out of an office and then sneaking back in.
I travel enough that when I’ve walked by Clear kiosks at airports, I’ve sometimes considered joining up. The main reason I haven’t is that among the airports I use most, the ones that Clear first tended to be the ones with the fastest security in the first place. (I rarely wait more than about three minutes at the United terminal at JFK, but if Clear served the nightmarish McCarran airport in Las Vegas I’d probably be a member today.)
But in the back of my mind, I think, I’ve always been uneasy about the idea of a background check and money overriding airport security practices…and yes, I feel that way even though I know just how lame many of those practices are.
So I never signed up. And I’m glad that I’m following this story as a bystander, rather than as someone whose personal information information might have been sitting on the amazing disappearing laptop…