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Need to Know: Secret TSA Program Spies on U.S. Citizens During Air Travel

Since 2010, federal air marshals have been tasked with following Americans through airports and onto flights, keeping notes on bathroom breaks, sociability, and more.

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Photo via iStock/ vovashevchuk

Big Brother is keeping tabs at 30,000 feet. Unbeknownst to American travelers, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has assigned federal air marshals since 2010 to follow and surveil innocent airplane riders, recording data on everything from nervous tics and blinking to cell phone use and seat placement.

First made public by reporters at the Boston Globe on Sunday, the initiative — dubbed “Quiet Skies” — was quickly confirmed by TSA administrators, who argued that the program was necessary to assure the safety of domestic travelers. Those views differ from those of the American Civil Liberties Union and other legal advocacy organizations, who claim that the program could be problematic in who it targets, and potentially intrude on Americans’ right to privacy.

“We are no different than the cop on the corner who is placed there because there is an increased possibility that something might happen,” TSA spokesman James O. Gregory told the Washington Post shortly after the story broke. “When you’re in a tube at 30,000 feet...it makes sense to put someone there.”

The undercover operation focuses on Americans who have traveled out of the U.S. to particular countries, as well as those with suspected connections (no matter how seemingly vague) to previously recognized terror suspects. Individuals targeted by the Quiet Skies program are followed for up to 90 days or three successive plane trips, and are not notified that they are being watched before, during, or after the process. Journalists at the Globe uncovered TSA documents indicating that anywhere from 40 to 50 Americans are followed on domestic flights under Quiet Skies protocol every single day.

During in-flight surveillance, air marshals are responsible for taking notes about the target’s behavior and actions, with internal reports detailing hawk-like focus on unsuspecting travelers. Once a passenger has been selected, a marshal is given a dossier containing a photo and personal information, including date of birth and hometown. Onboard, marshals are required to keep intense details on everything from bathroom use and conversation with seat partners, to how many bags were carried on or checked, to how many cell phones or computers a target is carrying. Those notes are then turned over to TSA personnel, at which point it isn’t clear whether they are kept on file, sent to other agencies, destroyed, or used for any other purpose.

While TSA officials have defended Quiet Skies as necessary policing tactic in a post-9/11 America, a number of anonymous communications from individual air marshals obtained by the Globe indicate that agents tasked with carrying out such dubious surveillance are themselves upset with the agency’s priorities.

“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 wrote in a text message to coworkers, the Globe reports.

Echoing those concerns, ACLU officials have already begun investigating potential privacy law violations, seeking more information about the criteria for target selection within the secretive program.

“These revelations raise profound concerns about whether TSA is conducting pervasive surveillance of travelers without any suspicion of actual wrongdoing,” Hugh Handeyside, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s National Security Project, told the Globe. “If TSA is using proxies for race or religion to single out travelers for surveillance, that could violate the travelers’ constitutional rights. These concerns are all the more acute because of TSA’s track record of using unreliable and unscientific techniques to screen and monitor travelers who have done nothing wrong.”

Despite the controversy caused by the uncovering of the Quiet Skies program, TSA officials refused to say whether the initiative has lead to any arrests or the prevention of any planned terrorist attacks. Even with the program now public knowledge, all indications suggest that the TSA will continue to select new Quiet Skies targets and deploy federal air marshals to investigate them.