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You May Have Been Followed by the TSA

July 31, 2018
4 min read
You May Have Been Followed by the TSA
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The Transport Security Administration is watching you.

Not just in line at the airport security checkpoint, but through the airport terminals and even on your flight, too.

A new report in the Boston Globe says that Federal Air Marshals, a program that lies under TSA's umbrella, have been following ordinary Americans not on terrorist watch lists or suspected of other crimes. The air marshals collect notes on US passengers' behavior and movements. The tracking program -- dubbed "Quiet Skies" -- is catching widespread criticism from within the aviation agency, the Globe reports.

And if you've exhibited some of the behaviors that trigger the surveillance, you may have been followed, too.

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" on TSA documents obtained by the Globe.

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, such as whether the passenger uses a computer, uses a bathroom, "engaged in more than casual eye contact with an airport employee," slept on their flight, talk or texts on a cell phone, has a "cold penetrating stare” or has a "jump" in their Adam's apple.

The air marshals also note any change in physical appearance, like gaining or losing weight, changes in facial hair or general hair length/style change.

The government documents obtained by the Globe all US citizens re-entering the country are screened for possible inclusion in "Quiet Skies," based on their travel patterns or affiliations. There are 15 rules to screen US passengers for inclusion. The criteria the Globe had access to seem vague. For instance, some "rules may target" passengers whose travel patterns or behaviors match suspected terrorists or anyone "possibly affiliated" with someone on a watchlist.

Passenger names are additionally checked against terrorism watch lists and other databases.

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The TSA confirmed to TPG that this program exists, but denied the fact that it targets ordinary US citizens. The agency gave us this statement via email:

"The purpose of this program is to ensure passengers and flight crew are protected during air travel," a TSA spokesperson wrote. "Contrary to the article 'Welcome to the Quiet Skies' published by The Boston Globe, the program doesn’t take into account race and religion, and it is not intended to surveil ordinary Americans.

"In the world of law enforcement, this program’s core design is no different than putting a police officer on a beat where intelligence and other information presents the need for watch and deterrence, " the statement continued. "The program analyzes information on a passenger’s travel patterns, and through a system of checks and balances, to include robust oversight, effectively adds an additional line of defense to aviation security. With routine reviews and active management via legal, privacy and civil rights and liberties offices, the program is a practical method of keeping another act of terrorism from occurring at 30,000 feet."

Once a passenger is flagged for Quiet Skies, an air marshal is given a file with the person's basic information, placed on the person's next flight and the tracking begins.

The effectiveness of Quiet Skies remains questionable, especially because in April the New York Times published a blistering report on the federal air marshal program in general, quoting from marshals themselves who say though their jobs are “crucial to overall efforts to protect airplanes and airports from terrorist attacks,” their agency is in such disarray that little effort is actually made to deter terrorists.

When asked by TPG, the TSA did not comment on whether any potential terrorist incidents were effectively stopped by air marshals who operate for Quiet Skies.

Featured image by AP