Published: Thu, August 02, 2018
Markets | By Noel Gibbs

Quiet Skies: The TSA’s Problematic & Potentially Illegal Surveillance Program

Quiet Skies: The TSA’s Problematic & Potentially Illegal Surveillance Program

Deploying air marshals to gather intelligence on civilians not on a terrorist watch list is a new assignment, one that some air marshals say goes beyond the mandate of the US Federal Air Marshal Service.

Some Americans have been trailed and closely monitored by undercover air marshals as they traveled on US flights, as part of a previously undisclosed Transportation Security Administration program called Quiet Skies.

Teams of air marshals have compiled data on the behavior of thousands of travelers under the "Quiet Skies" program, documenting whether they chatted with others, appeared sweaty or fidgety, or exhibited other actions.

However, marshals tasked with carrying out the surveillance have criticised the program, while United States lawmakers have demanded answers from the TSA about the controversial program. "They're created to protect the traveling public, but they're not targeting the average American".

While the scope of the new program is yet to be fully understood, the investigation believes that up to 50 Quiet Skies passengers are spotted in crowds each day.

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The "Quiet Skies" programme reportedly uses an unknown algorithm to flag flyers without any criminal record for surveillance on domestic flights.

Some air marshals, in interviews and internal communications shared with the Globe, have said they closely monitored travelers who posed no threat, such as a businessman, a Southwest Airlines flight attendant, and a fellow law enforcement officer.

US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) spokesman Thomas Kelley, in an emailed response to a query, said the program's goal is to ensure "passengers and flight crew are protected during air travel", and the agency does not take race or religion into account. Contrary to the article "Welcome to the Quiet Skies" published by The Boston Globe, the program doesn't take into account race and religion, and it is not meant to surveil ordinary Americans.

"The objective of this program is to ensure passengers and flight crew are protected during air travel". "People might just be a little nervous about flying, and as a result, a marshal has to fly with them?"

He says, however, that the program must be targeted and not just based on monitoring human behaviours, otherwise it would be like trying to find a "needle in a haystack". "The program analyzes information on a passenger's travel patterns, and through a system of checks and balances, to include robust oversight, effectively adds an additional line of defense to aviation security".

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"The American public would be better served if these [air marshals] were instead assigned to airport screening and check-in areas so that active shooter events can be swiftly ended, and violations of federal crimes can be properly and consistently addressed".

Hugh Handeyside, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union's National Security Project, said the surveillance raises a number of constitutional questions.

Jonathan Turley, a professor at George Washington University Law School, tells NPR that whether or not Quiet Skies is legal depends on how exactly it is carried out.

"If this was about foreign citizens, the government would have considerable power".

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