Aug 2, 2021 - Politics & Policy

TSA PreCheck: Shoes on, privacy off?

Image of people waiting in the TSA PreCheck line at San Francisco airport.

Travelers going through security at San Francisco International Airport. Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

An effort to expand enrollment in the TSA PreCheck airport screening program is an invitation for government vendors to target passengers with marketing pitches — and those messages could sow confusion and anger, critics worry.

Why it matters: TSA PreCheck status lets trusted travelers zip through airport security with their shoes on and electronic devices stored away. That frees up TSA agents to focus on actual security threats.

  • But newly adopted changes to the program could link those benefits to ads from companies looking to monetize passengers' data.

Catch up fast: The Transportation Security Administration last year hired three companies to help expand enrollment in TSA PreCheck, as directed by Congress under the 2018 TSA Modernization Act.

  • The companies — Idemia, Telos Identity Management Solutions and Alclear, a subsidiary of Clear Secure — will collect the applications for a fee, but the actual screening will be done by TSA.
  • Last month, the Department of Homeland Security said competing providers would have leeway to set their own prices for PreCheck.

Driving the news: Clear Secure, the newly public company best known for its CLEAR biometric screening kiosks at 38 airports and 26 sports venues, already sees a lucrative marketing opportunity.

  • In documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission ahead of its June 30 initial stock offering, Clear called the TSA contract a "significant top of funnel opportunity" and said it planned to bundle TSA PreCheck enrollment with its own CLEAR membership.
  • “Our platform is multifaceted and a powerful network of networks. … The larger our member base becomes, the more valuable our platform becomes to our current and prospective partners who utilize our platform to better realize their business objectives," the company's S-1 filing states.

How it works: Clear officials say sign-ups for TSA PreCheck and Clear membership — even when offered at a bundled price — will be separate.

  • Under its contract with TSA, the company can only use TSA PreCheck enrollment data for PreCheck enrollment purposes, Clear spokesman Ken Lisaius tells Axios.
  • "Individuals who enroll in both TSA PreCheck and CLEAR will receive the same privacy protections as all other CLEAR members, as set forth in our Privacy Policy."

Between the lines: Clear’s privacy policy states that the company will not “sell or rent consumer personal information."

  • It may, however, share non-identifiable information with affiliates for a variety of purposes, including product and service offers from marketing partners — but only with the member's consent, Lisaius says.
  • "We may present those going through the PreCheck enrollment process with opt-in (check the box) opportunities to receive emails and learn more about CLEAR. These will be completely optional, opt-in and transparent," the company says in a follow-up email, adding that it is collaborating with TSA on the rollout.
  • "No TSA PreCheck applicant data will be shared with third parties for commercial purposes unless the applicant allows their information to be shared to receive marketing offers,” a TSA spokesperson said in a statement.

Yes, but: Some critics, including a former U.S. official who helped create TSA two decades ago, say Clear shouldn't be piggybacking on a government security program to pump up its business.

  • "They are building a cake, layer by layer by layer. The customer is very valuable. That should not interfere with an official government-sanctioned program," said Justin P. Oberman, a Chicago consultant and former assistant administrator of TSA at the Department of Homeland Security.
  • "It would be like if there were ads for tax prep software on the IRS home page. It’s just a bridge too far."

The big picture: Data is the currency of the internet, experts note.

  • "Everything you do on the internet is a postcard," Greg Barnes, director of media analytics at McKinney, a Durham, North Carolina, ad agency, tells Axios.
  • Using data that people freely share on websites, advertisers can send targeted marketing messages. "It's a for-profit thing, even if you’re not giving them any money. That’s just how the internet works," Barnes said.

The bottom line: People who sign up for TSA PreCheck through Clear could feel duped if they start receiving ads or promotional emails from Clear's marketing partners, Oberman says. Plus, there's always the threat of a data breach, he added.

  • Instead of incentivizing people to join TSA PreCheck, it could have the opposite effect, he said.
  • "People will attribute the annoyance of spam emails and the damage of a data breach to TSA, which will suppress demand for PreCheck."

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