CNBC Disruptor 50

CLEAR is poised to lead the multibillion-dollar biometric screening race for the coronavirus

Key Points
  • CLEAR is best known for speeding travelers through TSA checkpoints, but now it has set its sights on what could be an even bigger business: getting people back to work amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
  • Called Health Pass, the product links biometric information, such as a fingerprint, to health questionnaires based on CDC guidance.
  • Health Pass can help employers figure out who can work and who must stay at home. 
  • Health-screening tools like CLEAR's could be part of a multibillion-dollar industry.
  • The 10-year-old biometric security company made CNBC's 2020 Disruptor 50 list, revealed Tuesday.
Clear principals Ken Cornick and Caryn Seidman-Becker.

A company that originally got its start speeding travelers through growing airport lines in the post-9/11 era now sees a major opportunity as the country exits lockdown from the Covid-19 pandemic. 

CLEAR, a private New York company that specializes in biometric security, released a product called Health Pass this year that links Covid-19 health information to biometric identifiers such as your face, eyes and fingerprints. It will allow users who feel fine to pass quickly through checkpoints that screen for sick and infectious people. 

"Just like screening was forever changed post-9/11, in a post-Covid environment you're going to see screening and public safety significantly shift," CLEAR chairman and CEO Caryn Seidman-Becker said on CNBC. "But this time it's beyond airports — it's sports stadiums, it's retail, it's office buildings, it's restaurants."

As states reopen and companies start to bring employees back to the office, many are searching for tools to monitor the health and safety of their employees and customers. The Covid-19 coronavirus is so contagious that companies want to prevent major outbreaks before they force them to shut down entire offices or floors.

Consequently, health screening could become an everyday task for many Americans. The CDC says that temperature screening is an optional strategy that employers can use, but that any business with workers who are at high risk or are over 65 years old should consider conducting daily temperature and symptom screening of all employees. Thermal scanners, which can be used to screen people for fevers, is expected to be a $5.9 billion industry this year, and apps and other software that help companies reopen safely could be a $4.3 billion market, according to IDC estimates. 

Companies like CLEAR — which made CNBC's 2020 Disruptor 50 list — see a major business opportunity. Since it launched in 2010, CLEAR has grown to about 5 million customers and has raised about $387 million in venture capital from such investors as United Airlines and Revolution Growth, according to PitchBook.

CLEAR CEO explains company's new Health Pass service to help screen for Covid-19

Health Pass isn't widely deployed yet, but the company's existing relationships with airports, sports stadiums and the government could give it a boost among a sea of options. 

"Health Pass has launched, and we are in conversations with different partners across industries, including with restaurateur Danny Meyer, the New York Mets, RXR and the Las Vegas' Covid-19 recovery task force," said Maria Comella, CLEAR's head of public affairs.

"From the hospitality perspective, the industry was hit really hard from the complete eradication of demand. As things come back online, hotels, airlines, restaurants, they are all very focused on making customers feel comfortable," said Dorothy Creamer, senior research analyst for hospitality and travel digital transformation strategies at IDC. She added that she has seen an increase in demand for health-screening technology from airports, hotels and arenas. 

Clear's pods will soon be able to take passenger temperature.

How Health Pass works

CLEAR links biometric data, such as a fingerprint or iris scan, to certified documents. For example, users with a CLEAR account can link their boarding pass and government ID to their account. So instead of having a TSA agent check your documents first, travelers with the CLEAR app can breeze directly to the security checkpoint by scanning their face at an airport.

With Health Pass, CLEAR wants to connect biometric data to information that could determine risk for Covid-19, including test results. The idea is to automate a daily health-screening task to make it easier, quicker and "contactless," so employees and guests don't need to touch potentially risky digital menus to gain entry to their workplace. 

"People are accustomed to moving through an airport security check, and that's the sentiment that many hospitality companies are saying, is that health screening would need to be the sort of thing that people get used to," Creamer said.

When arriving at a location with Health Pass screening, users take a photo of their face to verify their identity, then answer a series of questions based on CDC guidelines about how they are feeling. They can then share those answers through a QR code, which a security guard can scan. Healthy workers can be allowed to pass, while contagious workers would be told they need to go home. The security guard doesn't see any personal data — just a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. 

Seidman-Becker said in May that the company will retrofit its kiosks at airports, which help passengers speed through TSA lines, to take passenger temperatures as well. Instead of a QR code, the kiosks can scan a user's face to pull up their Health Pass. 

CLEAR isn't performing Covid-19 testing, but it is working on adding a way to input Covid-19 test results to the app in the future. "It's also about linking. Just like we built those links to tickets, it's about linking to lab companies and test data, and this will continue to evolve," Seidman-Becker said. 

Several other technology companies are vying to link identity to health screening in the post-pandemic era. NEC, a Japanese company that makes facial recognition tools for airports and airlines, announced last month that it can authenticate the identity of people wearing face masks using facial recognition, which could speed entry and increase safety at health-oriented checkpoints at offices or other buildings.

Cali Group, which invests in technology companies focused on the hospitality industry, has announced its own entry screening technology, including face scanning, that can detect if a person has a fever. 

The privacy question

One challenge for CLEAR will be building trust with new users who could recoil at linking biometric data with sensitive health data.

Although CLEAR is opt-in and the company says it does not sell or share personal information or biometric data, there is still unease among Americans about personal data collection. Seventy-nine percent of Americans are concerned about how companies and the government use their personal data, and about half of Americans say they had decided not to use a product or service because of worries about how much personal information would be collected, according to a Pew Research poll from May

CLEAR's Health Pass plan also has drawn scrutiny from Washington lawmakers who want more information about how the company is using facial recognition and if it may be biased against minorities. 

"While we appreciate CLEAR's contribution to the discussion of safely reopening our nation's economy, the use of facial recognition technology poses real privacy concerns," U.S. Sens. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and Cory Booker, D-N.J., wrote in a letter to Seidman-Becker in May.

The senators asked CLEAR if the company is using its facial recognition technology to identify symptoms of Covid-19 and if the company has taken steps to look at bias in its facial recognition algorithm, among other questions. Health Pass uses facial recognition biometrics to confirm that a selfie that the user takes when entering a location is actually them. Its kiosks also use fingerprint and iris scanning to confirm identity. 

Data such as test results or whether a person says they are feeling sick are also more closely regulated than other kinds of digital data. CLEAR says that all Health Path data will be stored in a way that complies with HIPAA, the health data regulation. 

Sensitive health data could also represent a potential attraction to hackers, meaning that it needs to be carefully protected.

"Bad actors are trying to breach systems to get better information. We saw this before Covid-19, but with Covid-19 they see another opportunity to 'break into the bank' to get the information," Kelvin Coleman, executive director of the National Cyber Security Alliance said, speaking generally about security issues related to health data. 

Seidman-Becker previously told CNBC that "privacy and data security is job one at CLEAR."

CLEAR's biometric technology has been given the highest U.S. government compliance rating available for protecting sensitive data, a representative said, and the company has a comprehensive security program to protect against threats to user data. In its privacy policy, CLEAR says it maintains several safeguards to protect personal information against accidental or unlawful use.