I first read about it in the newspaper: a new concept in speeding up airline security called Clear®.  The idea is to pre-inspect, via extensive background checks, passengers traveling by air so that bottlenecks in the security lines can be eliminated, and “cleared” passengers, whisked through.

I may not be nuts about being “inspected,” but my husband and I have both held high security clearances, and we know the drill.  The humble driver’s license long ago became a de facto national ID.  Personal information today is shared often and easily by agencies at the federal, state, and local levels; crossmatched (if need be) with all manner of ulterior sources; and fed into still other computers for analysis—all to catch criminals, including terrorists.

That’s the world we live in.  If you are involved in criminal activity, you have no expectation of any “right to privacy.”  Period.

A corollary to high-tech crime-fighting, however, is that everyone is now a suspect.  Forget about the fact that you may never have received anything more remarkable from law enforcement than a parking ticket; that even in your rebellious youth, you never called the police “pigs,” did drugs, engaged in protests, or drove drunk.  None of that matters in this, the Age of Terrorism.

Exceptions are made, of course, for the extremely wealthy—someone rich enough to charter a plane and maybe own a private airstrip.  But that has always been the case.

So, after enduring the ongoing annoyances of repackaging my creams, cosmetics, hair-care products, and even medicines so I could cram them into tiny containers that would all fit into a quart-sized baggie; after having my chiffon formals rudely shoved onto conveyor belts, where one even got damaged; after facing brusque attendants who caused me to drop my driver’s license because I could not hear what they were saying, because I had thrown my hearing aid into their bowl, etc., I decided to check out Clear®.  I thought it would be nice, on my 40th wedding anniversary, not to have to “present for inspection” every leg of our journey—in other words, to be treated with the respect that most passengers used to be accorded.

I went online and found that the price of being treated as a law-abiding citizen is $128.  It turns out that Clear® is actually a subsidiary of a corporation called Verified Identity Pass, Inc. (VIP, of course), founded in 2003.  The corporate pitch is that not everyone should be a suspect and that “we needed a fair, sensible way not to treat everyone the same when it came to terrorism protection.”

Right on!  I eagerly dialed the 24/7 toll-free number.

Does this mean, I asked, that I no longer have to break my neck hoisting carry-on luggage onto a conveyor; that I do not need to cram multiple tubes and bottles into a miserable baggie; that I can keep my shoes, earrings, hearing aid, and cardigan on, and just get on the dang plane?  Does this new Clear® card that contains my biometric fingerprint and iris data mean I have passed the background check and am henceforth cleared to board until renewal time, like a driver’s license?  If so, how is it that you can give this card as a gift, as described on your website, or get the card in seven-to-ten days?  Does the $128 fee represent a one-time payment, with smaller renewal fees?  Is this card good for international travel as long as one is using a U.S.-based airline?

“Um, well, no,” the VIP representative replied brightly, “it doesn’t quite mean any of those things.”

You still stand in line.  You still hoist your bags.  You follow all the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) rules.  You still take your shoes and half your clothes off.  You go through a metal detector, so forget the earrings and hearing aid, as well as watches, belts, and barrettes.  All your bags are still subject to search.  All liquids and semiliquids go in a baggie.  You will still present your driver’s license and boarding pass (and passport for international flights) to the TSA attendant.  You pay the full fee every year, and it may go higher, so it is a “good idea” to purchase the maximum number of automatic renewals (three) to “lock in” the $128 rate.  For international travel, the card is only good at the airport from which you leave the United States.  The seven-to-ten days is how long it takes to make your card, not to do your background check, which is three-to-four weeks.  And if you already have security clearances, that’s great, because VIP can exchange information and perhaps shorten the time.

“Well, then, exactly what am I paying $128 for?” I asked.

Here’s what the Clear® card actually does, none of which is, um, clear at all from the online pitch, which also tells you that the Clear® website is the preferred starting point for initiating the process: Your line, a bright blue, pretty one, is staffed by Clear® employees who are trained to be polite.  Your Clear® card is placed in a reader to verify your biometric information.  (If your child is under 12, he may accompany you without a card.)  Then you will go through the same rigmarole as everyone else under the watchful eye of the not-so-polite TSA.

That’s it.  For $128, you get to stand in a line with other people who think they are VIPs because they have paid $128 to get ahead (maybe) of the fellow who didn’t shell out.  No matter: Both the other fellow and the “VIP” will still be treated as suspects—guilty until proved innocent.

Clear® sounds a bit more like Scam (or maybe Shakedown) to me.