Taking “Big Brother” to a whole new level, a previously-undisclosed TSA program that uses undercover air marshals to shadow thousands of U.S. travelers in airports and on planes is causing alarm among travelers – and prompting calls for an investigation on Capitol Hill.
The existence of the program, dubbed Quiet Skies, was revealed over the weekend in an investigative report in the Boston Globe, and was subsequently confirmed by TSA. While it has apparently been in effect since 2010, the program has come under increasing criticism from within the TSA ranks, according to the newspaper. The article detailed numerous concerns voiced by the air marshals tasked with watching travelers who are placed on a list, due to their travel patterns or other features but who are not on any watch list or suspected of any crime.
The TSA uses 15 criteria to assess the type of threats that would place someone under surveillance, after which the individual is watched during their subsequent travels for their next three trips, or the next three months, whichever comes first. The marshals assigned to this duty are required to report in minute detail the behavior of the target, including how often they nap or use the restroom, and whether they appear nervous. The Globe reported that up to 50 individuals might be under surveillance at any given time.
Causing particular concern was the revelation that among the travelers selected for scrutiny was a businesswoman who had recently returned from Turkey, and a Southwest Airlines flight attendant. Southwest did not respond to a request for comment.
TSA quickly pushed back after the news drew strong condemnation from members of Congress and the public. "The program absolutely isn't intended to surveil ordinary Americans,” the agency said in a statement. “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.”
Several members of Congress quickly called for a full investigation.