The End of the Line

Steven Brill’s plan to improve airport security—and save you 30 minutes.

Brill’s got more content

Steven Brill is an enterprising reporter, in that he has made a habit of turning reporting into enterprises. In 1979, while still in his 20s, the Yale graduate founded the American Lawyer. In the 1980s, he started writing about why juries decided what they decided in high-profile cases. “Jurors always expressed great fascination with the trial, and I kept thinking: someone ought to televise trials,” he told me in an interview yesterday. “I even wrote a column in the American Lawyer saying this would be a great idea. And when nobody did it, I decided to do it.” So he created Court TV in 1991 and made a nice (but not publicly disclosed) chunk of change when it was sold to Time Warner in 1997.

Next, he founded Brill’s Content, an earnest monthly magazine about the media industry. When it went belly up in 2001, Rob Walker noted in this space, “you can bet that Brill will be back.” Walker wondered whether the returning figure would be Brill the groundbreaking journalist, or Brill the aspiring mogul.

It looks like it’s both, but more the mogul. After 9/11, Brill got a big advance from Simon & Schuster to write a book about the emerging world of security and law and began writing a column in Newsweek about security issues. The 723-page tome he produced, After,was well-reviewed but little-purchased. It sold about 12,000 copies according to Bookscan, which counts about 70 percent of U.S. sales.

While researching the book, Brill spent a lot of his time cooling his heels in security checks at airports and office buildings. On his way to see Attorney General John Ashcroft in the fall of 2001, Brill spent 15 minutes in the Justice Department’s visitors’ center. “I gave them a driver’s license, someone half looked at it, and gave it back. After 10 or 15 minutes, they just sent me up the stairs to see the Attorney General without going through a metal detector.”

In a December 2002 Newsweek column, Brill laid out a potential solution to the twin fears gripping the nation: the anxiety about aviation security and the anxiety about the government’s incompetence and tendency to violate privacy. A private-sector company should develop a sort of national identification card, he wrote. The company could sign people up, gather fingerprints, ask the government to perform background checks, and then issue special cards that would allow the prescreened holders to pass through dedicated lines at airports and buildings. The machines through which the cards would be swiped would also be equipped with biometric technology to read fingerprints or iris scans. Following the publication of After in the spring of 2003, Brill decided to launch such a company himself.

Brill had the keen insight that it would take an outsider to make the security pass happen. He had no faith that the government could pull off something like it. After all, as he notes in the book, the Justice Department and the Immigration and Naturalization Services had been unable to figure out how to merge their own fingerprint databases. Meanwhile, big government contractors would just wait for a big contract rather than try to develop a solution.

With some of his own cash, later augmented by investors such as Lehman Brothers and Baker Capital, he started Verified Identity Pass, Inc. The logic of the business seemed impeccable. It wouldn’t cost the government anything to set it up—TSA would be asked to review and approve (or reject) applicants that Verified Identity signed up. In an era when airports compete against others nearby for customers, special VIP security lines would be a nice perk to offer customers. Frequent flyers—many of them businesspeople for whom time is money—might be expected to pay for the privilege of avoiding long lines at regular security. And Brill reasoned they’d be more likely to trust a private company with information than the government. As far as the potential impact to overall airport security, the prescreening process would subject travelers to a higher level of scrutiny than they normally receive when their drivers’  licenses are examined at the airport. “You still go through the magnometer, and your bags still get X-rayed,” said Brill.

Brill then had to sell the product—a system he called Clear—to individual airports. In June 2005 the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority awarded a contract to Verified Identity and Lockheed Martin to design and manage a pilot program. (In 2004, as part of its efforts to deploy a Registered Traveler Program, TSA had started five free pilot projects of its own at airports around the United States. The pilot projects all ended last fall.) Seven weeks later, Clear was up and running at Orlando International Airport. So far, 12,000 Orlando flyers have signed up at $79.95 per year.

As described by Brill, the Clear registered traveler program is very simple. People fill out applications online and give fingerprints and iris images in person at the airport. Once TSA approves the flyer, he receives a card that entitles him to go through a specially marked line, manned by a Verified Identity Pass employee. (You also have to swipe your finger.) As Brill told Congress in early November, a study of the Orlando operations showed that “our members typically spent four seconds and never spend more than three minutes waiting to go through security, whereas non-members often spent more than thirty minutes.”

Clear is slowly rolling out. In late November, San Jose International Airport said it plans to introduce Clear, once it receives TSA approval. In his November congressional testimony, Brill said Clear is poised to launch at 30 to 40 major airports.

So, will Verified Identity be the next Court TV? Or will it be the next Brill’s Content?So far, it’s a small business: 12,000 customers paying $80 a year adds up to less than $1 million in annual revenues. And the process of signing up individual airports is laborious. Plus, there’s some deep-pocketed competition coming. Biometrics company Saflink earlier this month said it was forming a partnership with Microsoft, Johnson Controls, Expedia, and other companies to offer a similar service. Last week, Laura Meckler reported in the Wall Street Journal that Unisys is interested in the market as well.*

On the other hand, with several hundred airports and millions of frequent flyers who would be glad to pay to avoid inconvenience, there’s probably room for several competitors. And the risk that the government would simply decide to offer this service on its own seems low. In November, Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security Kip Hawley said the government is “committed to maximizing private sector involvement in the operations of the Registered Traveler Program.”

Four years after Brill’s Content folded, Brill may have launched a product that lots of people are willing to subscribe to.

Correction, Dec. 23, 2005: In the original version of this article, Dan Gross misspelled Wall Street Journal reporter Laura Meckler’s name. He also undercounted the number of registered traveler program pilot projects. Initially he wrote that there were four. There were five. Both errors have been corrected.