Home Airlines TSA ‘Quiet Skies’ program secretly monitors US passenger behavior

TSA ‘Quiet Skies’ program secretly monitors US passenger behavior

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US Federal Air Marshals since 2010 have been secretly surveilling passengers and reporting on suspicious inflight behavior, even though those being monitored do not appear on any terrorism watch-list and are not suspected of committing a crime.

“Quiet Skies,” the previously undisclosed surveillance program, was first reported on by The Boston Globe July 30. As part of the program, small teams of Federal Air Marshals follow targeted passengers in airports and inflight, observing them for behaviors as ordinary as fidgeting, using the bathroom repeatedly or having a strong body odor, according to internal documents reviewed by the Globe.

US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) spokesman Thomas Kelley, in an emailed response to a query, said the program’s purpose is to ensure “passengers and flight crew are protected during air travel,” and the agency does not take race or religion into account. Kelley defended the basis of the program, arguing it is “no different than putting a police officer on a beat where intelligence … presents the need for watch and deterrence.”

“The program analyses information on a passenger’s travel patterns, and through a system of checks and balances, adds an additional line of defense to aviation security,” said Kelley, adding that the surveillance program is a “practical method of keeping another act of terrorism from occurring at 30,000 ft.”

Passengers may be targeted for Quiet Skies screening because of affiliation with someone on one of the no-fly watchlists or with a database of possible terrorists. It is not clear whether the program, which surveils about 35 passengers flying in the US daily, has ever prevented an attack or snagged a potential terrorist.

TSA spokesman Michael Bilello said the program targets both US and non-US citizens on domestic and international flights, and added that airlines had been briefed on the use of Federal Air Marshals to monitor suspicious passengers. A spokesperson for Airlines for America did not respond to a request for comment.

American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project senior staff attorney Hugh Handeyside called on TSA to provide the public with more transparency about what criteria are used when adding passengers to the list. He also expressed doubt about the program’s methods, citing what he called the agency’s “record of using unreliable and unscientific techniques to screen and monitor passengers who have done nothing wrong.”

“This is surveillance, plain and simple,” Handeyside said. “They’re watching travelers in secret and they’re doing it without any suspicion of actual wrongdoing. Such surveillance not only makes no sense, it is a big waste of taxpayer money and raises a number of constitutional questions.”

TSA has previously faced criticism for the secrecy of its surveillance operations. In May, the agency came under fire after a secret watchlist of “combative” and “unruly” passengers was disclosed by the New York Times.

The agency, which was created in the aftermath of the September 2001 terrorist attacks, has also faced questions about its ability to effectively screen passengers. In 2015, the Department of Homeland Security Inspector General issued two reports that found vulnerabilities in TSA checkpoint screening, after agents carried simulated handguns and explosives concealed on their bodies through passenger security checkpoints.

 

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