Homeland Security Is Reviewing TSA’s ‘Quiet Skies’ Surveillance Program

Aug 15, 2018

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The office of the Inspector General for the US Department of Homeland Security said this week it will review the controversial “Quiet Skies” surveillance program.

The program, which is run by the Transportation Security Administration and was uncovered by the Boston Globe two weeks ago, has federal air marshals follow passengers the TSA deems suspicious through US airports and onto flights.

The DHS Inspector General, John Kelly, said in a letter sent to US Representative Michael E. Capuano’s office on Monday that his office would review whether the surveillance program is effective and compliant with federal privacy laws, along with other aspects of Quiet Skies. Capuano, who represents Massachusetts’ seventh congressional district, was one of the numerous lawmakers who requested more information from the TSA after reports of the controversial program surfaced.

Widespread backlash from Congress and US citizens alike occurred after reports of the previously unknown security program surfaced. TSA documents obtained by the Boston Globe showed that behaviors as innocuous as “facial flushing,” “excessive perspiration,” “sweaty palms,” “strong body odor,” “gripping/white knuckling bags,” “face touching,” “wide open, staring eyes,” “rapid eye blinking” and “trembling” are listed as “behavioral indicators” that could land passengers on the program’s list to be followed by air marshals.

Further government documents obtained by the Globe show that thousands of US citizens have unknowingly been watched and tracked in airports and on flights across the country due to these behaviors. Air marshals record minute-by-minute updates for two separate reports they send back to the TSA on passenger behaviors listed above and other observations.

Federal lawmakers and civil rights groups demanded more information on the legality of Quiet Skies, including its cost to tax payers and overall purpose.

Responding to the backlash, TSA Administrator David Pekoske said Tuesday that Quiet Skies helps protect US air passengers from terrorist attacks, and despite complaints from civil rights organizations, the surveillance would continue.

“I think it’s still very important to add to in-flight security,” Pekoske told the LA Times. “Essentially what [Quiet Skies] does is it allows us to look at the patterns of travel and, based on patterns of travel, assess… what kind of risk that passenger might present.”

Pekoske also told a travel industry conference that the security agency has long required passengers with travel patterns that raise red flags to go through additional screenings at airports, but having federal air marshals board the flights of the passengers raising suspicions was the new addition that Quiet Skies introduced.

The program has existed since 2012, but documents show it was ramped up in March. Since then, about 5,000 passengers have been followed by air marshals, but none have been deemed a threat, three sources with knowledge of recent Congressional briefings on the matter told the Boston Globe.

Several air marshals also told the Globe that the program tracks harmless passengers, like a working flight attendant, a business executive, and even a fellow federal law enforcement officer. The program takes recent travel destinations into consideration when identifying passengers who might be “suspicious.” Air marshals said the operation flirts with illegality.

Pekoske nonetheless further defended Quiet Skies to CBS News on Tuesday, saying the tracking initiative “makes an awful lot of sense.”

“If an agency responsible for security has some information that might indicate that there may be — emphasis on ‘may be’ — more risk with a particular passenger, providing some mitigation or some risk management on the flight is a very important and very reassuring thing to me.”

Featured image by AP Photo/Reed Saxon.

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