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TSA surveilling ordinary travelers’ behavior through secretive program: report

TSA screening at Denver International Airport. (danjo paluska/Flickr)
July 31, 2018

Airline travelers are being targeted by a secret surveillance program carried out by a government agency, according to a recent report.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) collects behavioral information on travelers for a secret program that surveils citizens even when they’re not on a watch list, The Boston Globe reported. Travelers are surveilled in the airport and on the airplane by undercover air marshals.

The secret program deemed “Quiet Skies” explicitly targets air travelers who “are not under investigation by any agency and are not in the Terrorist Screening Data Base,” according to an internal TSA bulletin released in March when the program was launched.

The bulletin explains the goal of the program, which is to block threats to aircraft “posed by unknown or partially known terrorists,” and grants the agency discretion when selecting which travelers to monitor, and the extent to which they’re monitored.

The air marshals maintain a behavioral checklist of travelers. Some of the behavioral information collected include any technology they use while traveling, their movement and location patterns relative to the boarding area, their sleeping and bathroom patterns, and more. The information is then sent to the TSA.

The Globe acquired a copy of part the behavioral checklist, which can be viewed here. The full list was unavailable.

Air marshals admitted to the Globe that they’re surveilling travelers who don’t appear to be a threat at all. The marshals referred to the program’s work as “a time-consuming and costly assignment,” which impedes higher priority law enforcement duties.

One air marshal sent a text message to colleagues that said: “What we are doing [in Quiet Skies] is troubling and raising some serious questions as to the validity and legality of what we are doing and how we are doing it.”

One air marshal complained about an assignment to track an on-duty Southwest Airlines flight attendance selected for surveillance by the Quiet Skies program.

The Globe said that “dozens of air marshals” have brought their concerns of the Quiet Skies programs to superiors, and even legal counsel.

In a statement to the Globe, TSA officials defended the agency’s broad efforts in blocking terroristic threats, but would not reveal whether or not they have blocked any specific threats during their Quiet Skies efforts. They also refused to acknowledge that the program exists.

TSA spokesman James Gregory said revealing such secretive information “would make passengers less safe.”

All American citizens re-entering the country undergo a screening during which their names are checked for inclusion among any watch lists or databases, as well as any prior travel patterns recorded through the Quiet Skies program.

If a traveler is selected for surveillance by the 15 mysterious screening rules of the Quiet Skies program, a team of undercover air marshals accompany that traveler on their flight. A file containing the traveler’s photo and other identifying information is provided to the team.

Approximately 40-50 travelers identified as Quiet Skies targets each day, with about 35 of them tracked by air marshals. Travelers are typically surveilled on domestic flights to and from cities of various sizes.

Air marshals have typically been assigned to flights taking routes that are considered higher risk for terror threats, or a passenger who is identified on a watch list.

However, assigning air marshals to track travelers who are not deemed a threat or included on a watch list is a new effort that has some questioning the legality of such surveillance.

After the Globe report was released and raised concerns from members of Congress, TSA officials agreed to meet with Congressional committees this week to provide a briefing on the program.