Yankee Stadium's Next-Gen Security Tech Isn't Making Anyone Safer
The New York Yankees are the latest MLB team to use fingerprint scanners to allow fans to skip ballpark metal detectors. Are all of these supposed safety measures worthless "security theater"?
Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports
The scene outside Yankee Stadium for the home team's contest against the Toronto Blue Jays on Saturday was much the same as it's been for most Yankees home games this year: a mob of fans queuing up for the ubiquitous metal detectors that appeared at the start of this season. The only exception was at a pair of well-hidden gates along Jerome Avenue, where two lines offered quick access and no waiting: just press your fingers to a tablet to confirm your ID, and you could be through the turnstiles in seconds.
This was the first weekend in the Bronx for Fast Access by CLEAR, a new security system offered by the San Francisco Giants, the Colorado Rockies, and now the Yankees. With Major League Baseball requiring walkthrough detectors or wands at all stadium entrances on game day—a mandate that's been ridiculed as unnecessary "security theater," but we'll get to that in a moment—the CLEAR Fast Access system promises fans a quicker route to their seats. A Yankees press release touted the new system's "secure biometric identity platform," which will enable the team to "augment our standard of security while providing better game day service to our guests."
It sounds like magic, or at least like technology that is indistinguishable from it. And it kind of is—but not necessarily in the good way.
You may be familiar with CLEAR if you've been to an airport recently—or at least one of the twelve airports where the company has relaunched its services after a bankruptcy few years back. To board a plane using CLEAR, you bring your proof of ID, your fingerprints, and your retinas—plus $179 for a year's membership—to a CLEAR scanning center. Once all of your biometric data has been scanned into the system and it's verified that you are who you say you are, you can use your membership to jump past the airport lines where you have to show your ID, though you still need to wait to walk through metal detectors and have your shoes X-rayed.
For ballgames, CLEAR Fast Access works very differently, as I found out when I offered myself up as a guinea pig at the CLEAR tent in the Bronx this weekend. First, I held my driver's license under a handheld scanner, then pressed my right index and middle fingers, then left index and middle, then both thumbs, onto a fingerprint scanner. (No retinal scanning, unlike at airports, which made for a bit of a disappointingly non-futuristic experience.) Next I answered two proof-of-identity questions, of the "Which of these was ever your home address?" variety. In less than a minute, I was approved to head over to Gate 2 and waltz right in past the poor saps waiting in the metal detector line.
Fast Access is free for fans: the MLB teams pay for staffing, and CLEAR gets the exposure as well as access to members' personal data. (I haven't gotten my first CLEAR promotional email yet, but I'm sure it's only a matter of time.)
At Saturday's game, the CLEAR tent drew a small but steady trickle of fans. (A staffer estimated about 100 people signed up at CLEAR's first Yankee game, on Friday, and they were looking to register similar numbers on day two.) Two Yankees mini-plan holders named Gloria and Lisa were among the new users, and they were thrilled to be able to cut the line. After the installation of metal detectors, one said, it usually took "15 minutes at least" to even get to the gates. Then they tapped their fingers, and disappeared through the turnstiles.
Unlike airports, ballparks don't usually have an ID-checking stage to skip. Security may want to know that you have tickets and that you're not trying to smuggle in Uranium-235 under your cap, but they don't give a crap about who you are. So the only way to expedite entry for the biometrically approved is to let them skip the metal detectors, provided they are bag-free—even though all they've shown is who they are, not what they're carrying.
In other words, if you need someone to carry some brass knuckles into Yankee Stadium for your next bleacher brawl, I'm your man. Unless you want to take 60 seconds to join CLEAR Fast Access yourself, and stuff them in your own pockets.
The idea here, presumably, is that by screening out people who are hiding their identity—a CLEAR spokesperson confirmed that nobody gets rejected so long as they are who they claim to be—it can allow trustworthy fans to speedily enter the game without being subjected to the indignity of being asked if they have any artificial plates or limbs. Which, for me, immediately brought to mind James Davis.
Davis was a New York City councilman who, while trying to mend bridges with a political rival in 2003, brought him to a hearing at the Council's City Hall chambers. City Hall had recently installed metal detectors, but Davis took advantage of a fast lane of his own. Using his council ID, Davis and his guest bypassed the scanners and entered the council hearing room—where, shortly afterward, the guest pulled out a .40-caliber pistol and shot Davis to death.
New York City immediately started requiring officials and their guests to be checked for concealed weapons before entering the seat of government, just like everyone else. They realized that it was patently insane to assume security measures weren't needed so long as the person in question was a public official or in the company of one. Now back to Fast Access, which allows any human on the planet to walk into a Yankee game without being scanned so long as they have a driver's license and a set of fingers.
"None of this stuff makes sense if you start thinking about it," said Bruce Schneier, a Harvard University security expert. Schneier coined the term "security theater," and dismisses services like CLEAR's as worse than useless, calling them "protection rackets" that basically promise, "Give me money, and I'll keep you off the lines."
"It's the league commissioners that are demanding these security measures, not the stadiums," Schneier said. "In this bizarro world, you can see the Yankees saying, 'I'm pissing off my fans, I have no choices, here's an option for them.' Even though it's stupid all the way down."
This is not to suggest, mind you, that Fast Access is going to result in a wave of gun-toting fans shooting up baseball games. The evidence, including all of the incident-free years before bag checks and metal detectors, suggests that there is minimal interest in committing acts of violence at ticketed sporting events in the U.S., and the worst attacks, like the 2011 beating of Bryan Stow at Dodgers Stadium, have occurred outside the stands. As security experts have not so reassuringly pointed out, if bad guys really wanted to wreak havoc at a sporting event, they would have a better target—not to mention an easier getaway—by aiming at the throngs of fans queuing up at metal detectors.
Still, replacing metal detectors with ID checks is so nonsensical that it's hard to believe that it's being taken seriously by baseball teams, let alone by the media outlets that have excitedly reported on this next-generation security technology. (MLB, the Yankees, and the Giants did not reply to a VICE Sports request for comment; the Rockies sent a short statement indicating that the first three games with the service "went smooth operationally.") This is nothing against CLEAR, which by all indications does an admirable job of verifying your identification, for all that's worth. It's just that a verified ID is about as useful as a clean set of dental X-rays when it comes to deciding whom to let into a ballgame.
For a sports fan concerned about convenience and safety, there are two ways of looking at this. One is that MLB teams are partnering with a private company to get us all to sign over our personal data and fingerprints in the cause of a system that doesn't do squat to make anyone the slightest bit safer. The other, given that it's all security theater anyway, is that MLB teams have realized that the metal detector mandate has made getting into games a disaster, and are now looking for an escape route. If fingerprint scanners are the magic beans that let them pretend they're being vigilant, then hell, fingerprint scanners it is.
The simpler solution, of course, would be just to admit that the whole metal detector fiasco is pointless, and to let everyone in without being searched, the way things were back in the 20th century. If it makes you feel any safer, MLB could issue free membership cards to every baseball fan on the planet, and only those people would be allowed into games. Surely no bad guys could ever get their hands on those.