While providers of the rapidly expanding Registered Traveler program say it is a tool to fight terrorists, the Transportation Security Administration and experts in the field say it can get people to the departure gate quicker but does not provide a security benefit in its current form.
Registered Traveler "has promise as an ID program," said TSA spokeswoman Ellen Howe, but ". . . currently it is a convenience program that allows passengers who pay a fee and provide some personal data to cut to the front of the checkpoint security line. Because there is no additional security value to this program, it is not a priority for TSA."
But leaders of the handful of companies that offer member identification cards say that, in addition to ease and improved identification, the program can enhance airline terrorism prevention.
"It is the exact same security check that's used for those who are working on airplane engines or freight people on the tarmac, or those who work for the caterers," said Steven Brill, CEO of Verified Identity Pass, which offers the Clear card."TSA must do it for a reason."
After submitting biometric identifiers, passing a background check and paying an annual $128 fee, cardholders are assisted through TSA security by Clear attendants in designated lanes who check travel documents and help load materials for screening.
There are 165,000 Clear cardholders and 18 airports where the cards are accepted. Membership has grown weekly by the thousands, according to Clear spokeswoman Cindy Rosenthal, and is expected to continue apace with the anticipated expansion to Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport and Los Angeles International Airport.
But because TSA, which regulates the program, rejects the private industry's security claims, members still have to undergo the same level of scrutiny and material restrictions as regular airline passengers.
Harry Willis, a homeland security policy researcher at the Rand Corp., said that there are potential security benefits motivating programs like Registered Traveler and Global Entry, a new pilot program operated by Customs and Border Protection.
"If you register people as trusted travelers, there might be an opportunity to move people through [security] more quickly and in the case of an event, target your increased screening to those that you suspect are less secure," Willis said. "It's not profiling people into security, it's profiling people out of security."
Brill and others have envisioned extending trusted travelers benefits such as relaxed liquid restrictions, but Willis said the current vetting process is not enough to ease security inspections.
"Right now [the Registered Traveler program] has a very low level of security clearance," he said. Such programs "represent the potential to increase security capability and reduce the burden on the common traveler, but it requires some consideration of the level of security clearance that people go through."
TSA conducts a security threat assessment on all program applicants. Biographical information submitted is checked against several terrorism, law enforcement and immigration databases. Enrolled members continue to go through assessments and can be ousted if their security status changes.
Howe said that TSA conducts the background checks to prevent known terrorists from getting Registered Traveler cards, but critics say it doesn't matter because members go through TSA security anyway.
"The background check isn't necessary," said Bruce Schneier, a security expert and chief technical security officer for BT Counterpane. "It doesn't make sense in terms of the Clear program. ...It has nothing to do with the airport. Why can't I just go to the airport and pay $10 to go through the line faster?"
While the TSA and other security authorities believe Registered Traveler has a neutral effect on security, Schneier sees the potential for terrorists without a criminal background to exploit the pre-screening process.
The Transportation Security Administration plans to make a "registered traveler" program available nationwide.
Fees to expedite trusted fliers could be doubled.