Are you an American citizen who has travelled via an airplane in the past few months? Did you fall asleep or stared for too long during the flight? Did you use your phone?
Being an ordinary passenger you might not remember such trivial details about your flight, but the chances are federal air marshals, as part of a previously undisclosed Transportation Security Administration (TSA) program, know the answers to all such questions – and more.
According to the recently released report by the Boston Globe, the aim of the program, known as "Quiet Skies," was to gather details about people’s behavior on flights to try to thwart any potential aviation threats.
However, what’s unusual, the program requires the air marshals to track ordinary U.S. citizens who are neither suspected of a crime nor on any terrorist watch list. They are also told to document their every move.
According to a TSA official, even before people board the plane, they are monitored by air marshals who use information from the intelligence community and their past travel patterns to decide whom they need to target.
The unsuspecting citizens are reportedly automatically screened for a possible inclusion in Quiet Skies. Travelers, who are not even notified, reportedly stay on the watch list for up to 90 days.
Though it remained unclear what merits being added to the watch list, the program laid out a list of 15 rules to screen passengers.
According to the Globe, the marshals flying with the people under surveillance are supposed to track certain unusual behaviors, such as whether the person displays “excessive fidgeting,” a “cold penetrating stare,” rapid eye blinking or rubbing or wringing of hands or whether they are “abnormally aware” of their surroundings and if the individual sleeps during the flight.
Apart from the behavioral indicators, marshals also note if the subject’s appearance has changed, whether they used a phone to text or call, if they used the bathroom etc.
However, that’s not it. Even when the target passenger is off the plane, marshals must also keep track if the individual used public or private transportation to leave the airport after their flight.
Predictably, the reported terrorist screening database raised potential privacy concerns and was regarded as a lot of hassle by some air marshals.
In fact, according to the Globe, several marshals who talked to the publication on the condition of anonymity thought the program wasn’t only time consuming, but also a waste of taxpayers’ money.
They went on to say the funds that were invested in the process were nothing but waste of agency’s limited resources, and that instead of working towards the country’s safety, it was diverting the attention from legitimate potential threats present.
Moreover, an air marshal also got in touch with CNN and voiced similar concerns that with the task of focusing on passengers who “look suspicious,” the marshals were unable to pay enough attention to what they are actually responsible for: protecting the cockpit.
"These revelations raise profound concerns about whether TSA is conducting pervasive surveillance of travelers without any suspicion of actual wrongdoing," senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project, Hugh Handeyside, 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," he added.
However, amid widespread concerns, TSA said the program isn’t targeting ordinary citizens.
"The program absolutely isn't intended to surveil ordinary Americans. Instead, its purpose is to ensure passengers and flight crew are protected during air travel -- no different than putting a police officer on a beat where intelligence and information presents the need for increased watch and deterrence. The program analyzes information on a passenger's travel patterns while taking the whole picture into account and adds an additional line of defense to aviation security," the agency said in a statement.
However, John Casaretti, president of the Air Marshal Association, didn’t appear convinced by the agency’s idea of ramping up security under its program in question.
“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.
As of yet, officials haven’t cited any terrorist plots that were thwarted because of this program.
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