A new startup streamlines airport security with an iris scan and a fingerprint

Is there reason for concern about the use of biometric data?

Long lines, crowded spaces and having only socks on your feet in a public place – airport security lines are almost never a joyous experience, especially during the holiday season. 

As Sun Devils make their holiday plans, new technologies are emerging to help ease the process. 

One of these technologies is Clear, which was just introduced as an option to streamline the regular security screenings Sky Harbor in July. 

Clear is a security system that uses biometric data, such as irises and fingerprints, in order to help customers move through security lines faster at airports and stadiums. 

The membership fee is $179 a year, and there is an option to do a one month free trial. 

Jackie Puma, the general manager for Clear in Phoenix and an ASU alumna, said that Clear is a great option for students who travel often.

“In today's world, everybody wants things now, right?" Puma said. "They want it faster, so I think that students will benefit from not waiting in line (at the airport), because that’s what they are used to with everything, you know, Amazon, Uber, things like that.” 

A representative from Clear echoed this statement, saying that the company is looking to make security lines a more seamless customer experience. 

The representative explained that there are two aspects to airport security: There is the ID check line, which is generally the longest step in the process; and the physical security, which is where people's bags and other items are scanned and checked. 

Clear automates the first step by having a machine scan the fingerprints and irises of the member. 

The Clear representative explained that the biometric data used by the Clear machines is safer than just checking an ID and boarding pass because fingerprints and irises are unique to each individual. This makes it near impossible to have a false match. 

But that raises questions about the security of using such sensitive information. Data, however, is very sensitive. 

According to the ASU Information Security office, sensitive data is defined as personally identifiable information, such as credit card or social security numbers.

Adam Brossman, a senior computer science major, said that information security is an uphill battle.

He said that one of his concerns is about the sensitivity of the biometric data Clear has on its members. 

"A password is easy to change," Brossman said. "It's a lot harder to change your fingerprint or your iris."

But some ASU professors said that the technology is not as scary as it might seem.

Kim Jones, the director of the Cybersecurity Education Consortium and a professor in the School of Mathematical and Natural Sciences, pays to use Clear himself.

Jones explained that Clear is primarily designed for customer service, not to minimize or change airport security standards.

“The basic tenet behind those types of systems is always, in exchange for providing me more information or access to yourself ... I will allow you to bypass some small portion of the steps that you have to go — so looking at these systems as this is going to combat terrorism is not appropriate," he said.

Jones said that all of the systems that store sensitive data, like credit cards or biometric data, all use best practices in order to protect their systems as best they can.

He said consumers take the same risk signing up for Clear as they do when they put their credit card into Pay Pal. 

As seen through recent cyber attacks, like the Equifax breach in 2017, companies are constantly fighting to stay ahead of hackers. 

“My assumption and my hope is that the folks at Clear are taking the same types of steps, but a credit card processor, a hospital with the patient data, a credit bureau or bank would take with its sensitive data," Jones said. "It's just another category of sensitive data.” 

Charles Loftus, an instructor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, said he feels Clear is very secure.

But in the abstract, he said he has some concerns about the use of biometric data in general.

“The day will come the day will come when you walk up to a machine and somehow it takes a clip of hair, a shaving of skin, a piece of spit and it will say, 'okay, thank you Charlie, have a great day.'” Loftus said. “This concept of biometric security is good, but for every time we increased the security like this, we all give up freedom."

Reach the reporter at nesherwo@asu.edu or follow @thecolesherwood on Twitter. 

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