What Do DVD Rentals and Airport Security Have In Common?

Both are provided by companies offering cash prizes in exchange for new business ideas. Just as Netflix announced plans to pay a $1 million prize to anyone who comes up with an algorithm for movie recommendations that is 10 percent more accurate than its own, airport security company Clear is now offering $500,000 to whoever comes up with the best new technology to speed up the security checkpoint process. The company, founded in 2005, is a membership service that promises subscribers the ability to fast-track through security in 13 major U.S. airports.

Clear founder and C.E.O. Steve Brill (who also founded American Lawyer magazine and CourtTV) told Freakonomics that the winner will be “the first party to come up with technology that we decide works, and the [Transportation Security Administration] approves, that shows speed improvement of at least 15 percent at the [airport security] lanes.” Once a winner is chosen, Verified Identity Pass, Clear’s parent company, plans to buy the technology for use as soon as it receives TSA approval.

The idea, said Brill, is to allow anyone with a good idea to bring it to fruition: “Going through airport security is one of the most frustrating experiences we all share, so we figured there must be lots of people out there with good ideas, who may be hesitant to try to sell their product to the government.” While the company has promoted the contest mostly to tech companies, Brill stressed that, “[the winner] could come from anywhere.”

Companies have been working for years to develop technology that will streamline the airport security process. GE, in conjunction with Clear, has been developing a platform that scans passengers’ shoes for explosives and metals while they’re standing on it, while X-ray makers are developing improved picture machines that would presumably enable X-ray readers to see laptops clearly while they’re still in their cases. But so far, nothing has emerged as the winner for increasing safety and efficiency, while waits and delays at airports just keep getting worse. Given the current state of affairs, it can’t hurt to solicit innovative ideas from the general public — at the very least, it could give frustrated passengers a way to pass the time while they wait.

If you’ve got the winning idea, you can submit it here.

(Hat tip: Frank Neu)


So better airport security is worth $500,000, while better DVD recommendations are worth $1 million. Which one is more important? Numbers don't lie.


Casey, Becky, Joel,

You may have missed:

"Verified Identity Pass, Clear's parent company, plans to buy the winning technology for use as soon as it receives TSA approval"

Ergo, a winning submission must be a technology (something you can patent) not merely an idea.


To Casey's Comments

Then we don't need police either. Let every man/woman defend themselves. If they are not capable, then they dont deserve to live.

Let transit systems be run by private players. If plying some routes isn't financially feasible, then the people living in these routes don't deserve to commute.

Lets cancel the licensing for Doctors. Let everyone be given the opportunity to act as doctors. If somebody dies because of their prescription, then the free market will not reward them with future patients.

I can go on....


One little idea I use to reduce the time I spend going through airport security checkpoints is to avoid traveling to the U.S. Much of the rest of the world is less intent on fooling people into thinking that cumbersome security screening with crazy restrictions actually increases their safety.

The main advantage of my technique is that I don't have to wait for TSA to approve anything. The big disadvantage of course, is that my suggestion is completely worthless for people who live in the U.S.

I've never been to England, but I've heard it's just as bad there. I mostly travel between Canada and Mexico, and that's pretty straightforward (once I started avoiding stopping over in the States).


There are four things we need to do.

1) Stop the political-correctness and start profiling. ALL Muslims/Arabs, unless they are otherwise excluded, should be go through strong security measures. We are not "at war" with Australians. We are at war with a very particular group that is from withing Muslim/Arab society. So why waste time searching people who are neither Muslim or Arab? HOWEVER, to this we add an element of random searches (and/or based on certain suspicious characteristics). Thus, we search all Muslims/Arabs and a random assortment of non Muslims/Arabs.

2) For those who are neither Muslim/Arab, nor chosen for random security screening, create GROUPS that go through the security process at the same time. If any alerts are triggered, the entire group simply takes a step back and goes thorugh the security screening individually, until the problem is found. If an entire group passes muster, they all move on.

3) One of the main things (and this was hit on by another poster) is to have regular (daily? hourly?) attempts by special personnel to get past security. If they do, it is placed on a report and posted to the world. What airport is going to want to be known as having the most lax security? They will fire the company or fix the problem. Further, this daily effort (we could create, literally, a thousand different ways to attempt) would keep people from getting "bored"--after all, they stand to look pretty bad if they miss someone.

4) There must be shared "best practices." Somehow, every day or week, there needs to be the recognition of new possibilities, best responses to those possible security breaches, brainstorming of "How I Would Do It," and the such so that every airport in the nation becomes increasingly safer. We'll have to figure out some way to keep companies from withholding information so that they look better than a competitor (maybe they have to fly out of their competitors airport, thus having the risk placed on them directly-ha!).

Just some thoughts....



To Ram:

"Then we don't need police either. Let every man/woman defend themselves. If they are not capable, then they dont deserve to live."

The police already have no legal obligation to protect you. They capture criminals who have already committed or are in the act of committing a crime. That's all. Your defense is already in your own hands.



To Casey:

With respect to your comment (#14), you seem to have forgotten (or never paused to consider) that of the 2,998 people killed on 9/11, only about 247 of them were non-hijackers on the four flights. So it would seem that those invested in the security of our flights is broader than the airlines or passengers.


How about: everyone has to get naked, walk by ten sniffing dogs, and conclude with an american gladiators style gauntlet. At least that would be entertaining for the rest of the queue.


Also in regards to #21, I believe box cutters were allowed on flights prior to 9/11 as well, so it wasn't technically the fault of the screeners.


I'd like to see a 'low security' wing of the airport, where airline fly 'low security flights'. These flights will be cheaper, quicker, and more convenient, and those of us who think that most of the 'security' rules in place are stupid can take them.

Those who think they really are that important can take the secure flights.

I am willing to be a large number of people would take the less secure flights right now (but I may not be able to convince my wife to take one...she worries enough about flying anyway!)


I agree with anyone who describes this as simply window dressing to make people "feel" better as opposed to doing anything stopping terrorism.

I cannot disagree more with how our country has approached improved airline security. Our solution is to throw money away on better x-ray/bomb sniffing to find bombs instead of looking for Terrorists. From a basic perspective, terrorists tend to be rather larger than bombs and harder to hide in luggage.

Why we have not approached our long time ally, Israel to help find a solution is absurd. No country has had to deal with more threats of terrorism for decades than Israel. If anyone has ever flown El Al, they can describe their highly effective method of finding terrorists (not bombs).

How do they do it? Drum roll please... they talk to you. Instead of wasting money on machines, invest in education, training and better paid employees to talk to every passenger as they wait to check in. In the El Al line, a rather friendly, and clearly intelligent employee with a PDA asks you a series of on the fly questions about your trip: where you're going, why you know Hebrew (if you do, they'll start speaking in Hebrew), where you're staying, etc. This isn't a process that can be standardized, it's not even about the questions they ask, it's about how you answer. If you're lying they'll likely find a hole in your story or realize you're have something to hide. Then it might be worth taking a look at your bag/luggage as opposed to scanning at random.

Maybe it's bullsh%t political correctness and fear of "racial profiling" that prevents us from learning from what actually works, but in a time where we seem to constantly give up basic rights in the name of "safety", the fact that we are too stupid to invest in intelligent human interaction to prevent terror is simply ignorant.

I'm aware that this has little to do with the $500,000 contest that was created by some guy at Clear who read "Wikinomics" and wanted to get promoted, but I just felt like getting this off my chest.




Here's an idea: why not require TSA to clearly outline and post the hoops that I will have to jump through in order to check in?

When flying out of LAX on 2nd January, I stood in the TSA 'get your bags screened here' line prior to proceeding to my airline check-in counter. This HAD been the process last time I went through LAX (admittedly 2 years before). After reaching the front of that line, I was informed that I needed to check in with my airline FIRST and then return to the TSA 'get your bags screened here' line. Thanks. After checking in and returning to the TSA 'get your bags screened here' line, I waited once again before being told that since I was flying with a particular airline I would have to stand in a different line on the other side of the terminal. Thanks.

Total time wasted: A LOT.

Total time it would take for a half-competent TSA employee to make a flyer and print it out: Not very much.

Total time it would take to find a half-competent TSA employee: ???



Are you a terrorist? Check box yes or no


seems to me that if "terrorists" had a MacGyver,all the screening in the world might not detect this person.

to which ever: It's not Arabs; at this point the "terrorist assassins" have had fundamentalist islasmism in common. How do you screen for ideas?

To date, the best screeners for explosives are likely to be dogs or bees. (The bees or wasps that were trained are a potential problem to those allergic to Hymenoptera- usually a potentially fatal allergic reaction.) Electronics - that's another matter altogether.


Re #24:
Having a "low security" airline is a terrible idea. The costs of a hijacked airline do not fall entirely or even mostly on its passengers--just ask that to anyone who lived in New York or Washington six years ago. Hijackers can demand concessions from a government, particularly as most Western European nations do not have the "no negotiations with terrorists" policy the US adheres to. Plus, airliners and lives are expensive enough that "low security" airlines' insurance premiums would likely jack the cost of a ticket sky-high, if they could even get insurance at all.

El Al's security model--screeners asking questions, nearly all employees ex-military, thorough baggage checking, armed employees in every terminal and on every flight, racial profiling--is clearly extraordinarily effective. People gripe enough about current security measures, though, so they wouldn't likely put up with it on US carriers, particularly because racial profiling is such a touchy issue in the US.



All this talk about racial profiling and how we need to stop being PC misses one really big point: last time I checked, you can't tell that someone is a terrorist just by seeing which ethnic category they fall into.

If we were to "profile" based on ethnicity, you'd miss:
* John Walker Lindh
* David Hicks
* Adam Yahiye Gadahn
* The hundreds or thousands of non-Arabic extremists from places like Africa, SE Asia, and everywhere else.

All white dudes who joined the "dark side". And unless AaronS has some high-tech Islam detector, we won't even know where to start.

As for the Israeli method of interviewing everybody, can you imagine doing this for the 687 million passengers a year that fly in the US? TSA (which most of you seem to hate) would need to be 10 times the size it is now. However, TSA recently started the Behaivior Detection Officer program which works on the same principles, and that has generated protest!

So TSA really is darned if they do, darned if they don't. Frankly, I don't care if we replace TSA with private screeners again, but if they do, the Airline had better be liable - no bailouts from the taxpayer.



D. Thomas:
I appreciate your thoughts on cutting down on time spent in screening lines. I'm sure they would work. However, the results would cause delays elsewhere. Limiting to one carry-on bag means everyone would have to go to baggage claim hell to find their bag and thus the delay would just be shifted elsewhere. Some people (myself included) have no intention of ever sending our bags through baggage claim again because of the frequency that they lose bags, destroy bags, misplace bags, etc.



Nobody is dumb enough (i hope) to think that just being a specific ethnicity makes you a terrorist, but what El Al does includes a wide variety of characteristics such as demeanor, dress, ethnicity and just about anything else. To ignore the ethnic component as potentially indicative in COMBINATION with other factors would be simply dumb and only done for political correctness.

With respect to the "687 million passengers" in the US, how long does it take to get them all to take off their shoes, belts, pocket change etc? I think it's a matter of resource allocation. The US currently invests in window dressing and technology to find bombs. My point is to allocate those resources set aside to buy billions of $$'s worth of x-ray machines, bomb sniffing capsules (has anyone else seen this yet, it's nuts and probably costs a ton) and invest in INTELLIGENT employees that are well trained and compensated to find TERRORISTS (as mentioned earlier, theyare often harder to hide in luggage). In Israel, working for an airline is a highly respected and well paid position, which is not the case in the US (you can argue this point if you'd like, but it is far from the point).

Hell, if you take time it takes from the 8 people I pass that check my boarding pass and ID and simply replace that with 1 in depth conversation we might be getting somewhere...

I am very happy to hear about behavioral training, and with the all laws passed in the name of "safety" I find it hard to believe we can't push through the uniformed and outrage of trying to do things right.



Supermarkets used to have that little sliding gate on checkout so you could pack your bags while the next persons goods were being checked. That's a major bottle neck where everyones items get dumped down onto a pathetically small 3ft chute and you fight through coats.

Also a lot of people travel in pairs, so parallel or wider security gates so people dont hang around waiting for their friend or partner to come through. Then at least two people could go through at a time and if the buzzer went off each person would go back through on their own.

Also put the final passport check guy on the xray as well. Having to get your ticket and passport out at each step is a real delay too.


After some digging I found an article that looks into implementing El Al security in the US:

6 Costs

Could we apply security measures similar to those of El Al in the USA? One of the major issues is cost. Given the parlous state of US airlines, it is unlikely that additional costs occasioned by new security measures could be absorbed by the companies and employees through lower profits and reduced salaries.

So how much more would a ticket cost when the costs of El Al-style security were added to tickets prices? Estimates of the annual cost of security for El Al are in the $90M range for about 15,000 flights a year. That's at least $6,000 per flight. In contrast, the US Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) reports around 9M flights a year in the USA.[x] Thus security would funnel a good deal of money into the pockets of airline employees responsible for security.

But the question is how much extra such security would cost per passenger per flight. The BTS report cited above shows 638,902,993 passengers on 8,951,773 flights, or an average of about 70 passengers per flight in 2000, implying a shared cost of about $85 per passenger per flight ($6,000/70) for security. This estimate doesn't count the existing costs of security measures in place already in the USA, which might reduce the incremental cost per passenger per flight for raising security to the El Al level. It's surely worth investigating further.


How much have ticket prices gone up to pay for the arguably random and useless security measures that have been put in place in recent years. Could this additional cost be balanced with the privatization and removal of said useless measures (taking off my shoes and belt).