The TSA’s secret program to spy on you past security is under fire

Dec 4, 2020

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On Nov. 25, the Office of Inspector General for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) released a critical report about the TSA’s “Quiet Skies” Program and, speaking candidly, the TSA’s mismanagement of it. Back in 2018, the Boston Globe revealed the existence of the Quiet Skies program designed to have air marshals track suspicious passengers (including American citizens) and observe their behavior in airports and in flight.

Based on a flow chart in the report of how the program works, airlines submit secure passenger data to DHS, which then screens passengers against a Customs and Border Protection “Quiet Skies list based on rule hits”. Any name matches go to Federal Air Marshal Service (FAMS) teams who observe the passengers in the airport and in flight based on a behavior checklist the Boston Globe obtained.

Under one section of the checklist entitled “abnormally aware of surroundings”, I am guilty of five of the six observed behaviors almost every time I go to the airport:

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  • Reversing or changing directions and/or stopping while in transit through the airport
  • Attempting to change appearance by changing clothes, shaving etc. while in the airport or on the plane (I have shaved after long flights or before meetings routinely)
  • Observing the boarding gate area from afar
  • Boarded last
  • Using the reflection in storefront windows to identify surveillance (well, I window shop in the airport so maybe the air marshal thinks I am looking for them)

I am not guilty of this behavior:

  • Observing other people who appear to be observing FAM (Federal Air Marshal) team and/or subject

Other behaviors observed by air marshals according to the checklist include if you went to the bathroom, touched your face, if your Adam’s apple jumped and if you stared.

The DHS Inspector General found the Quiet Skies program during fiscal years 2015 through 2019 resulted in only a single instance where a passenger was denied travel. The findings summary states:

Related: What are the five freedoms of aviation, and now do they affect you?

“TSA did not properly plan, implement, and manage the Quiet Skies program to meet the program’s mission of mitigating the threat to commercial aviation posed by higher risk passengers. Specifically, TSA did not:

  • develop performance goals and measures to demonstrate program effectiveness, or
  • always adhere to its own Quiet Skies guidance.

This occurred because TSA lacked sufficient oversight to ensure the Quiet Skies program operated as intended. For example, TSA did not have a centralized office or entity to ensure the various TSA offices properly managed Quiet Skies passenger data. Without sufficient metrics, analysis, and controls, TSA cannot be assured the Quiet Skies program enhances aviation security through FAMS as intended.”

From additional reading in the report, it’s clear no one person or people were in charge of the program. The report concluded that passengers’ personal information was mishandled and that passengers who were supposed to have been removed from the surveillance list likely weren’t, possibly a consequence of having no one in charge of monitoring or measuring the effectiveness of the program.

In formal responses to the report’s recommendations, the TSA agreed to create a Quiet Skies oversight council and develop a charter for the program (the program that’s been running since 2012) and the TSA also agreed it will create “a formal process documenting the component’s quality assurance process.” The TSA says all corrective actions are planned to be complete by Dec 31, 2021.

Bottom line

Given the TSA and Federal Air Marshal Service’s ineffectiveness of using Quiet Skies to prevent terrorism, I am left wondering why the program even continues and why it will continue for another year in its current form before corrective actions are completed. It’s probably time to loudly close the Quiet Skies.

Featured image by Jon Bailey/The Points Guy.

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