The federal Transportation Security Administration (TSA) may be watching you on your next domestic flight. They could be noting whether you’re on your cell phone or laptop or if you fidget during takeoff. Same goes if you get up to go to the bathroom or change clothes when you arrive.
The federal Transportation Security Administration secretly launched a surveillance program that tasks air marshals with trailing 35 or more everyday travelers every single day, watching and recording their every move on board the aircraft. That’s all according to a new explosive report from the Boston Globe, which broke the story over the weekend on the program dubbed “Quiet Skies.”
The TSA's Response
The TSA would not discuss the program with the Globe, saying it would “make passengers less safe” to do so. But the basics of the surveillance program are laid out in internal documents obtained by the newspaper.
Quiet Skies began in March, and already federal air marshals have targeted and followed thousands of U.S. citizens. The program had never been discussed publicly, in Congress or elsewhere, prior to the Globe’s report. And what’s most troubling about this new form of surveillance is that there’s no transparency or accountability for who should be followed. These aren’t travelers on an existing terrorist watch list.
According to the agency’s own internal bulletin, those targeted for surveillance “are not under investigation by any agency and are not in the Terrorist Screening Data Base.” While the agency labels their targets as “unknown or partially known terrorists,” the set of criteria that can trigger surveillance is very broad.
Who are the TSA Air Marshals Targeting?
All U.S. citizens entering the country are screened for possible inclusion. The TSA apparently checks travel patterns and personal relationships to see if a traveler is “possibly affiliated” with someone on a terrorist watch list. If the TSA thinks you’re worth following, they’ll place air marshals to watch you on your next flight. Just when that standard is met remains completely unclear. That's the problem.
However, that’s what happened with a young business executive because she had traveled to Turkey. Same for a Southwest flight attendant as well as a federal law enforcement officer. It has civil liberties experts worried.
“These revelations raise profound concerns about whether TSA is conducting pervasive surveillance of travelers without any suspicion of actual wrongdoing,” said Hugh Handeyside, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union. “If TSA is using proxies for race or religion to single out travelers for surveillance, that could violate the travelers’ constitutional rights.”
And even some air marshals are raising questions about their new line of work. They argue it detracts from more valuable work they should be doing to keep the airways safe. The Air Marshal Association itself has called the program into question.
The TSA has a tough task. Keeping Americans safe while traveling and safeguarding the country against terrorism is the definition of a thankless job. We can’t credit them enough for the threats they’ve stopped that we don’t know about. And they get all the blame for bungled operation, airport delays and more.
Still, this new surveillance program is troubling on many fronts. Security is important, but you don’t trade in your civil liberties when you purchase a plane ticket. The government needs a reason to watch you and report on your activities.
And so far, TSA has not shed any light on their rationale for trailing 35-plus citizens every day. Without public debate or meaningful oversight, it’s ripe for potential abuse.
Now that this program has come to light, we’re sure this isn’t the last you’ll hear about it. Stay tuned as this story develops.