Illustrations: Viktor Hachmang

Clear Conquered U.S. Airports. Now It Wants to Own Your Entire Digital Identity.

‘You are your driver’s license, your credit card, your health care card, your building access card’

Dave Gershgorn
Published in
14 min readOct 13, 2020

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In March, the air travel industry ground to a halt.

The coronavirus pandemic was spreading, and both airlines and passengers were caught unprepared. Most of the world, including the United States, began turning away foreign visitors, not wanting to bring more of the virus past their borders. Some airplanes were turned around in midair and sent back to where they’d come from.

By April, airlines and airports faced a grave reality: Nobody was flying, and revenue was plummeting. Scenes of empty airports became common in the news. At Los Angeles International Airport, the second-largest in the U.S., the number of departing passengers dropped by 95% compared to the same time period in 2019, according to an internal message obtained by OneZero via public records request. Airline stocks plummeted, and some cities began bailing out airport concession stands and car rental companies.

For Clear, an identity verification company that serves airline passengers, the slowdown seemed like an existential threat. Clear’s 5 million members pay for an annual subscription that lets them travel through security lines faster at more than 60 airports and sports arenas around the U.S. Members pay $179 a year to access kiosks where they verify their identity via iris or fingerprint scanners in order to skip long lines at security checkpoints, and anyone can sign up for the app’s free tier, which grants them this preferential treatment at stadiums. Clear’s revenue from some of the airports where the company operates more than halved during the month of April, according to documents reviewed by OneZero. It would take at least three months for Clear to resume generating revenue close to what it was before the pandemic.

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Dave Gershgorn
OneZero

Senior Writer at OneZero covering surveillance, facial recognition, DIY tech, and artificial intelligence. Previously: Qz, PopSci, and NYTimes.