TSA Admits 'Quiet Skies' Surveillance Program Is Useless, Promises To Continue Engaging In Useless Surveillance

from the 'no-terrorists-yet-but-you-know,-we'll-just-keep-up-the-spying-because-r dept

More news comes from the Boston Globe about the TSA’s “Quiet Skies” program. Having decided the skies were too quiet, the TSA started nominating people for surveillance based on god knows what and sent air marshals all over the US to tail “suspects” as they unsuspectingly went about their travels. Some of the targets included flight attendants and law enforcement officers. To those tasked with this futile (and likely unconstitutional) surveillance, the program is a waste of time and resources, if not a full-blown civil liberties catastrophe.

To the TSA, this previously-hidden bullshit is just some more discretion-flexing on behalf of the American public to save them from terrorists it inadvertently admitted aren’t even targeting aircraft anymore. Why go through the hassle of the boarding process, smuggling precursors past half-inept, half-asleep TSA agents when you can just rent a van from Home Depot and drive it into a crowd?

The TSA insists the program has value and that it will continue to send air marshals out to tail flagged randos. It also insists better education of air marshals will shut complaining marshals the hell up. But what it failed to do in a Congressional hearing, called after the Globe’s expose, is actually present any evidence the program works.

On Wednesday and Thursday, TSA officials shared details of the program with congressional staffers from four committees and fielded questions in closed-door briefings.

The officials said about 5,000 US citizens had been closely monitored since March and none of them were deemed suspicious or merited further scrutiny, according to people with direct knowledge of the Thursday meeting.


Cart-horse confusion expected to continue for the foreseeable future

The TSA had to tail 5,000 people just to determine they weren’t suspicious. That’s the wrong way around, constitutionally-speaking. The government isn’t allowed to snoop on people until it can find a reason to snoop on people. That’s not how the Fourth Amendment works. The TSA’s inept comparison to cops on the beat is worse than apples in regards to oranges. Cops don’t tail people to see if they’re going to do something suspicious. Suspicions are in place before the surveillance starts since, most of the time, law enforcement agencies don’t have the manpower/funding to tail people all over town to see if they might be up to something.

Get a load of this talking point, delivered by someone who doesn’t appear to care it’s directly contradicted by statements made to Congress by TSA officials.

“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,” TSA spokesman James Gregory said Monday.

Bullshit. All of this is bullshit. The “robust oversight” is especially bullshit since Congress was first introduced to this program by the Globe’s reporting. The TSA claimed it had informed Congressional oversight about the program but oversight members pushed back, stating they’d never heard of it.

The “line of defense” is more bullshit. A program that has, to date, surveilled 5,000 people only to discover the TSA had no reason to surveill these 5,000 people is not a “line of defense.” What it actually is is what the union representing the air marshals says it is: a waste of resources.

The air marshals union, which represents many of the 2,000 to 3,000 so-called flying FAMS, criticized Quiet Skies last week, saying that the criteria of the program were unacceptable and that the public would be better served to have air marshals assigned elsewhere.

Now, the TSA is being told it will need to answer questions about its no-longer-secret surveillance program — one it instituted without input from its oversight and without informing anyone it was putting it in place. And the program has wasted resources 5,000 times to achieve zero wins on the national security front.

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Comments on “TSA Admits 'Quiet Skies' Surveillance Program Is Useless, Promises To Continue Engaging In Useless Surveillance”

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Dan (profile) says:

(and likely unconstitutional)

This is the second time you’ve said this without any explanation of why you believe it’s so. Care to explain, or is this just an example of "anything I don’t like must be unconstitutional"?

No, the Fourth Amendment isn’t implicated, so long as everything that’s being observed is in public (which, from both articles, appears to be the case). Unless there’s some indication that people were targeted for speech or religion (and you’ve shown none), the First Amendment isn’t an issue. You could say that putting the Air Marshals on planes at all violates the Third and/or Fifth Amendments, but that would apply equally to the entire Air Marshal program. So where’s the constitutional violation?

Note, I’m not defending the program. It sounds thoroughly stupid and pointless, like just about everything else TSA does. But that doesn’t make it unconstitutional.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

There is a huge difference between observing what people around you are doing as you go about your daily business, like patrolling the streets and roads, and deliberately following people around to see what they are doing. If the latter is carried out by a civilian, it is stalking, and if carried out by law enforcement it is surveillance, that is search of the person activities.

Dan (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

…and it’s an incorrect (or at least incomplete) statement of the law. Don’t think it should be that way? Fair enough, and I might agree, but the Fourth Amendment has been rendered nearly dead letter by the War on (some) Drugs.

What you do in public is, well, public. Anyone can observe it, anyone can record it, and you don’t have any reasonable expectation of privacy in it. And "in public" is the key–so far as has been shown so far, everything in this program deals with observing subjects’ public behavior.

So far as I know, there’s no precedent holding that surveillance of a subject’s public activities implicates the Fourth Amendment in any way–but I’d be interested to see any.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Seeing something in public:
An officer stopped at a red light on 5th & main observes the suspect crossing the street.

An officer follows the suspect observing him cross the street on 5th & main, then enter the store where he purchased some condoms with cash, followed him down to the park where he was observed talking to man. both the suspect and the man left together and were observed eating together at the Bob’s dinner. After dinner the suspect got on the A train, alone…..

I hope that helps explain how observing something in public is different than following someone for the sole purpose of observing everything they do everywhere in public.

Dan (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Sure, I understand the difference. But there isn’t a legal difference. The Fourth Amendment applies to "searches" (and seizures, but those aren’t relevant here), and watching what happens in public (whether inadvertently or deliberately) isn’t a search. There’s no constitutional requirement for probable cause, reasonable suspicion, or even so much as a hunch for an officer to personally follow all your public movements for years. Should there be? Maybe, but that’s a different question.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Hypocrisy is the established norm.

At this point, it’s clear that the US is a society with divided clans and tiered castes. Our near-perfect rate of criminal indictment excepting law enforcement who cannot be indicted at all serves as a perfect example.

The Trump era, in which mulligans are issued to adulterous officials by the same religious blocs that are determined to judge everyone else, has simply put our society of double standards into sharp, visible relief.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

IANAL, but…
This was historically true, but starting with US vs. Jones in 2011 we’re seeing a distinction in SCOTUS decisions (and in the federal appeals court) where surveillance is (under at least some circumstances) being acknowledged as a type of search, as opposed to just a public observation.
Also, I’m not actually sure an airplane qualifies as public space — some of that can get pretty confusing… but usually I’d say you’d need the airline’s permission to do something like this on the airplane, except for the fact that an airline can’t actually refuse the TSA, which places an extra burden on the government to demonstrate that they were using their power to compel an airline responsibly.
I would characterize this as something whose constitutional status is in some doubt: It is not, in fact, so clearly against the rules that it could be decided by a trial judge, but it is not at all clear that it wouldn’t get to the supreme court or that if it did the supreme court would uphold it as an allowed activity.

MDT (profile) says:

Not a 4th Amendment Issue

This is not a 4th Amendment Issue. It may rise to a constitutional issue if the TSA utilized criteria that are protected (such as race, gender, religious affiliation, etc), but under SCOTUS precedent (Katz v. United States), you can basically be followed 24/7 by a cop.

Note, there are limits to this. Basically, a human has to tail another human. The TSA can’t put a tracker on someone’s luggage and use it to follow them (United States v. Jones) without a warrant (just like they can’t put a GPS tracker on your car and use it to track you without a warrant).

Related, the SCOTUS is currently working on another case about whether law enforcement or government agencies can use your cell phone to track you without a warrant (Carpenter v. United States). Based on the US vs Jones trial, my personal bet is that they come down on the side of needing a warrant, but you never know.

Anonymous Coward says:

Suspicions are in place before the surveillance starts since, most of the time, law enforcement agencies don’t have the manpower/funding to tail people all over town to see if they might be up to something.

Except when the surveillance is done by Automated License Plate Reader, in which case it’s extremely practical to follow someone all over town without needing to leave the comforts of the surveillance coordination center.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

The government isn’t allowed to snoop on people until it can find a reason to snoop on people. That’s not how the Fourth Amendment works.

Even though the courts have pointed out that is not how the Fourth Amendment works, and even though we have laws against practices of this sort, it remains very often how law enforcement works.

Snooping on people until it can find a reason to snoop on them describes the protocol of driving while black infractions in a nutshell.

It’s profiling.

Dan (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Even though the courts have pointed out that is not how the Fourth Amendment works,

Which courts, in which cases, have said that law enforcement needs any reason to personally observe the public movements of an individual? Because that’s what’s being discussed here.

even though we have laws against practices of this sort

What laws, in which jurisdictions?

Sayonara Felicia-San (profile) says:

Re: Re:

” That’s not how the Fourth Amendment works.”

It’s really adorable how quaint the readership here pretends to be.

Any logical, straight forward ‘rights’ intentionally written so that even the middle american ‘common man’ can understand them, can easily be subverted by over-intellectualizing legalistic mumbo-jumbo, just like the first and second amendments have been.

Anonymous Coward says:


Why go through the hassle of the boarding process, smuggling precursors past half-inept, half-asleep TSA agents when you can just rent a van from Home Depot and drive it into a crowd?

So… time to station a TSA agent at every Home Depot to give a full El Al-style interrogation to would-be renters? Why do you need to rent while (major event) is happening? Why’s a car not good enough? Will you be carrying any fruits or vegetables?

stderric (profile) says:

And the program has wasted resources 5,000 times to achieve zero wins on the national security front.

The problem isn’t that the Quiet Skies operation is inherently useless, it’s just that it’s missing the key element of any national security program: creating terrorists to catch in order to rack up the wins. The TSA really should have brought in someone from the FBI to help ’em out when they were developing the program. Never underestimate the value of solid system design.

Sayonara Felicia-San (profile) says:

In the words of the noted political philosopher 'Nancy'

We can’t possibly know what we are looking for until we find it!

Those Air Marshals are wasting resources, unless, we give them things to do.

For example. It’s 6am on the east coast when the flight to LA loads up with the weekly cabin of disheveled bleary eyed ‘management consultants’ and the Air Marshal.

Normally this Marshall would just be loafing his/her time away wasting precious government resources. With this program using a quasi-Monte-Carlo randomization the agent can select a potential criminal target for surveillance.

This can have many potential positive externalities which your short sighted dimwit readership has not considered. Here are a few:

– Keep surveillance skills sharp
– Conducting target assessments of hot chicks
– Act as a conduit for the dissemination of illegal domestic NSA intelligence for use in parallel construction

Cretins says:

Re: Re: In the words of the noted political philosopher 'Nancy'

Hows this for a real world example…

Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.
Defense.gov News Transcript: DoD News Briefing – Secretary Rumsfeld and Gen. Myers, United States Department of Defense

Jim P. (profile) says:


And if TSA does decide to end this program, there will be hysterical outcries from various media outlets, Congress critters, flight attendants’ unions, airline pilots associations, fearful sheeplike people and such as to how we are “weakening security” and allowing terrorists unfettered opportunities to continue their reign of terror in the skies.

This happens any time TSA even hints it might relax or eliminate or even change some stupid and useless bit of “security”, even ones they admit do nothing and produce no results.

To listen to such, you’d think it was raining aircraft and skyscrapers on a daily basis.

Uncle Lizard says:

TSA & other in-flight spooks...

…had one sit next to me on a flight from Florida to LA as far back as 15 years ago.
They also try to lure you into conversations about politics, human & civil rights, or may carry a laptop that they hope you will become ‘interested’ with the on-screen content.
These people, ie the TSA, Sky Marshals, CIA & FBI are so very obvious…in their dress, demeanor, behavior, and content / patterns of their speech.
I only fly my 50 year old re-built Cessna 172 these days; takes longer, but at least I have privacy apart from radar service from the various ATC Centers, and can pretty much deviate at the last minute from a false destination on the flight plan to my true destination at the last minute!
It sure is a long way from the Glory Days of airline flying with stewardesses, Captains who would come and visit you in your seat, and personalized service circa 1940’s-late 1960’s.
When the CAB went, so did the airline industry’s dignity and morals.
& look at what just sat down next to you!!!

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: TSA & other in-flight spooks...

Now that you mention it, I think I might agree with you. I remember one fellow sat next to me and looked like a government type, but just a little scraggy, a a bit incongruent, if you follow me. After some time he introduced himself as (I forget) and started telling me about his work, which was analyzing fragments of IEDs to identify and record trace biological fragments. They used those tools to create a database of bomb makers as part of a program to fight the war in Iraq.

Now that I think about it, I wonder if he was surveiling me. He seemed really interested in my opinions, even though I knew literally nothing about what he was doing or how he did it. Maybe he was just sampling my opinion about the military, the government and the war in Iraq.

Maybe you are right that they are obvious, after you know what to look for.

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