How the US government is monitoring ordinary citizens when they fly

Los Angeles, California, USA-December 2017: Airport Sign at the entrance of the security checkpoint in LAX airport with People waiting in line.

The US Transport Security Administration (TSA) has been monitoring some US citizens under a secret program called ‘Quiet Skies’.

And to us something smells a little off about the whole thing.

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Under the program, an unknown algorithm flags flyers without any criminal record, and then sees federal air marshals shadowing flagged travellers on their flights and reporting suspicious behaviour to TSA.

According to the Boston Globe, the program specifically targets travellers who “are not under investigation by any agency and are not in the Terrorist Screening Data Base”, in an effort to thwart threats to commercial flights posed by “unknown or partially known terrorists”.

TSA denies any racial profiling and claims the program is a “practical method”.

TSA told the BBC: “With routine reviews and active management via legal, privacy and civil rights and liberties offices, the programme is a practical method of keeping another act of terrorism from occurring at 30,000 feet.

“The purpose of this programme is to ensure passengers and flight crew are protected during air travel.

“The programme doesn’t take into account race and religion, and it is not intended to surveil ordinary Americans.”

However, federal air marshals carrying out surveillance have reportedly pushed back against the program, questioning whether it crosses legal and ethical boundaries, as they claim they often wound up tracking individuals who clearly pose no threat.

All US citizens who enter the country are automatically scanned for potential inclusion in the program, and if included, travellers remain on the watchlist for 90 days or three encounters, without any notification of their inclusion.

It is not yet clear what merits being added to the watchlist, but once a subject has been added, marshals will take note on everything while shadowing them.

This includes whether subjects are “abnormally aware” of their surroundings,  if they display “excessive fidgeting”, “cold penetrative stare”, or an “Adam’s apple jump”, and even if they are using a smartphone, and whether or not they sleep mid-flight.

While information on ‘Quiet Skies’ has only just been disclosed, the program has been in place since 2010 with thousands of Americans subject to surveillance without knowing.

“This programme’s core design is no different than putting a police officer on a beat where intelligence and other information presents the need for watch and deterrence,” TSA said in a statement to BBC.

As per the Boston Globe, John Casaretti president of the Air Marshal Association said in a statement that the ‘Quiet Skies’ program does not meet the criteria the group finds acceptable.

“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,” he said.

No information has been given by TSA regarding the success rate of the programme.

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