• United States



Secret Quiet Skies surveillance program tracks citizens not suspected of wrongdoing

Jul 29, 20184 mins

The TSA has a secret, domestic Quiet Skies surveillance program that includes federal air marshals tracking U.S. travelers not under investigation or suspected of wrongdoing.

Man on phone in airport
Credit: Thinkstock

Apparently it isn’t enough to conduct body scans or pat down people who intend to fly because the TSA now has a secret, domestic Quiet Skies program that includes surveilling American travelers who are not under any investigation or suspected of wrongdoing.

Before you get on a plane, do you change directions in the terminal or scan the boarding area from afar? On your last flight, did you sleep, talk to others, touch your face, use your computer, use your phone, or use the restroom? If you are the subject of a previously unknown surveillance program, then those behaviors and other minute-by-minute observations are documented by federal air marshals. Some air marshals aren’t even sure if the program is legal.

The Boston Globe, after interviewing air marshals and reviewing internal documents, first sounded the alarm about the Quiet Skies surveillance program, which launched in March. Every day since then, there are 40 to 50 Quiet Skies passengers on domestic flights – citizens who are not under investigation, not on a terrorist watch list or in screening database – and air marshals surveil about 35 of them.

Already under Quiet Skies, thousands of unsuspecting Americans have been subjected to targeted airport and inflight surveillance, carried out by small teams of armed, undercover air marshals, government documents show. The teams document whether passengers fidget, use a computer, have a “jump” in their Adam’s apple or a “cold penetrating stare,” among other behaviors, according to the records.

Who is being added to the TSA Quiet Skies program

Even air marshals conducting the surveillance are not certain of the full list of criteria for Quiet Skies screening. One document (pdf) states, “Quiet Skies rules change based on current intelligence.” Individuals may be targeted based on their travel patterns, if they are “‘possibly affiliated’ with someone on a watch list,” or if their flight “reservation information includes email addresses or phone numbers associated to watch listed terrorism suspects.” Examples of targeted Americans include a Southwest Airlines flight attendant, a federal law enforcement officer, and a businesswoman who traveled to Turkey.

The Boston Globe noted that all U.S. citizens re-entering the U.S. from another country are “automatically screened for inclusion in Quiet Skies.” If you are a target of Quiet Skies, documentation states that you will “receive enhanced screening at security checkpoints” and stay on the Quiet Skies list “for up to 90 days or 3 encounters, whichever comes first, after entering the United States.”

The tracking and following of citizens do not occur just during a flight, but also through the airport and even parking, as air marshals are asked to note the license plate or vehicle description of the pick-up vehicle of “domestic arrivals.”

Changing clothes, shaving, changing direction, or stopping while in the airport are a few of the indicators of being “abnormally aware of surroundings.” A wide range of behaviors, ranging from sleeping during the flight to wide open, staring eyes or rapid eye blinking, are on the ridiculous list of documented behavioral indicators (pdf). Fidgeting, rubbing or wringing hands, exaggerated emotions, and “other” are also no-nos.

Federal air marshals (FAMs) told The Boston Globe that the program is a waste of taxpayer dollars and actually makes the U.S. less safe, as they are not working on “legitimate, potential threats.” Many are not even sure if it is legal, but the TSA told The Boston Globe it is part of its “mission to ensure the safety and security of passengers, crewmembers, and aircraft throughout the aviation sector. As its assessment capabilities continue to enhance, FAMS leverages multiple internal and external intelligence sources in its deployment strategy.”

But John Casaretti, president of the Air Marshal Association, said, “Currently the Quiet Skies program does not meet the criteria we find 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.”

ms smith

Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.