An in-flight surveillance program, revealed by the Boston
Globe on July 28, has drawn criticism from members of Congress as well as from
privacy and civil rights advocates.
Under the program known as Quiet Skies, the TSA in March
began assigning air marshals to flights to monitor individuals who are not
formally under investigation by any agency and are not on a terrorist watch
"It's something that provides an ability to look at
individuals who have exhibited patterns of travel that are not unlike what
terrorists have exhibited in the past," TSA spokesman Jim Gregory said. "When
those travel patterns, along with other data, are looked at, it trips an alert
that places [individuals] into a category where there is a federal air marshal
that might be on the flight."
While he didn't go into much detail about what constitutes "other
data," Gregory did say that it could include an individual's contacts and
The program marks a significant shift for the TSA, the Globe
noted. Until March, the agency had used air marshals only on routes that were
thought to be high-risk or to monitor individuals on terrorist watch lists.
Quiet Skies drew scathing criticism from civil rights
"The arbitrary surveillance of innocent people at
airports guarantees that Muslim passengers will be disproportionately harassed
by federal officials based on racial and religious profiling, with no benefit
to the traveling public or to our nation's security," Gadeir Abbas, senior
litigation attorney for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said in a
prepared statement last week. "This is just the latest example of the
federal government's counterproductive and misguided approach to aviation
Abbas called for the program to be dropped immediately.
The ACLU was among several watchdog groups to file a Freedom
of Information Act request seeking documents about the Quiet Skies program.
Another was the Electronic Privacy Information Center
(EPIC), which in a July 31 letter asked for a wide range of documents related
to Quiet Skies, including the full list of criteria for Quiet Skies screening
and all internal TSA bulletins that reference the program.
Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), a member of the Senate transportation
committee, and Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.), the ranking member of the House
Subcommittee on National Security, also spoke out against the surveillance
In a July 30 letter to Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), the
chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Lynch
wrote, "While I strongly support the critical mission of the
Transportation Security Administration to 'protect the nation's transportation
systems,' the administration of a covert surveillance program that targets
nearly 20,000 air travelers, including U.S. citizens, per year without probable
cause must be subject to robust congressional oversight."
Speaking to Travel Weekly, Gregory said the TSA did not
reveal the in-flight surveillance program until it was revealed by the media
because the agency did not want to undermine its effectiveness.
"It is a sensitive program," he said. "Putting
too much information out there about it provides an advantage to adversaries to
potentially game the system."
Technically, Quiet Skies isn't new, having been implemented
by the TSA in 2010. But until March, it involved screening and observation of
targeted subjects only within airports.
Gregory said the algorithm used by the TSA to develop
targets doesn't include race or religion, which is a concern of privacy
advocates. The program has undergone a privacy impact assessment, as required
under law, he said. American citizens as well as foreign nationals are
Gregory declined to say if the in-flight surveillance program
has yielded any aviation security successes.
The Globe reported that the TSA surveils approximately 35
Quiet Skies passengers each day. Marshals use behavioral detection techniques,
including monitoring whether or not the subjects use the lavatory, fidget, use
a computer, scan the boarding areas from afar or wait to be last to board the
plane. They record their observations in minute detail.
Individuals on the Quiet Skies list can be surveilled on as
many as three flights. They are taken off the Quiet Skies list after three
months if they aren't found to be a risk, Gregory said.
Jeramie Scott, director of EPIC's domestic surveillance
project, said the TSA's explanation of how the Quiet Skies algorithm is
designed raises questions.
"The TSA says that its targets are based on
destinations people have traveled to," he said, "but we've seen how
algorithms can end up using information put in as proxies for race or religion."
Scott also called the very nature of the effort a "red
"It's a program that treats travelers as inherently
suspicious and seems to use associations in determinations of who to track,
which raises questions about whether the program runs afoul of the First
Amendment," he said.
Another item of concern, Scott said, is what the TSA does
with its data once it closes a Quiet Skies file.
Meanwhile, air marshals themselves question the usefulness
of the program, according to the Globe. In one case, an air marshal was
assigned to monitor a Southwest Airlines flight attendant.
The Globe quoted John Casaretti, president of the Air
Marshal Association, as saying that his organization believes its missions
should be based on recognized intelligence or in support of ongoing
"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," Casaretti said.
The Air Marshal Association did not respond to inquiries for
Gregory said the TSA briefed the four congressional
committees it reports to about the Quiet Skies in-flight surveillance program
in May. New briefings to each of those committees were scheduled last week in
the wake of the public revelation of the program.
The Globe was the second newspaper in two months to reveal a
previously secret TSA watch list. In May, the New York Times reported that the
agency had created a watch list of individuals who have engaged in disruptive
or aggressive behavior at airport screening checkpoints.