TSA Will No Longer Engage In Suspicionless, Cross-Country Surveillance Of Airplane Passengers

from the never-once-stopping-questionable-programs-BEFORE-they-start dept

Earlier this year, news leaked out about an unannounced TSA program. “Quiet Skies” was the TSA’s latest boondoggle, one that sent air marshals all over the US, tailing travelers just because. Things as simple as boarding too late/too early or using the restroom at the wrong time were designated suspicious behavior. It’s was such a shady program even the air marshals didn’t like it. Some felt it was illegal. Others found it ridiculous. But nearly every air marshal who spoke about the program called it as waste of time and money.

Following the Boston Globe’s exposure of the program, the TSA was summoned to a Congressional hearing to answer questions about “Quiet Skies.” The TSA admitted the program had caught zero terrorists but had managed to surveil nearly 5,000 individuals en route to this failure. The agency claimed the useless program was subject to “robust oversight” — a claim hilariously delivered to members of Congress who had first heard about the program from the Boston Globe.

The TSA refused to say it would end the program, even as the air marshals union publicly stated it did not support the program’s unwarranted surveillance or its waste of limited resources.

The Boston Globe has some good news to report: the TSA is apparently dismantling the program the paper exposed.

The Transportation Security Administration has curtailed its controversial “Quiet Skies” domestic surveillance program, following widespread criticism that federal air marshals were spying on thousands of unwitting fliers who are not suspected of any crime or on any terrorist watch list.

Agency officials told the Globe that air marshals no longer document the minor movements and behavior of these travelers, such as whether they fidget in the airport, go to the bathroom during the flight, or seem, according to the agency’s own checklist, to have a “cold, penetrating stare.”

The agency said it has also stopped following passengers through baggage claim and no longer compiles extensive reports on travelers who failed to rouse suspicions.

“Any routine passenger behaviors on a plane that would be seen as a normal behavior we are no longer capturing that,” said David Kohl, the new director of the Federal Air Marshal Service, in an interview.

“Quiet Skies” still exists, but without most of the stupid/unconstitutional stuff that made “Quiet Skies” shorthand for “Orwellian dystopia.” This may end the criticism but it won’t stop the bleeding. The Boston Globe reports both the Government Accountability Office and DHS Inspector General are investigating the program. Both entities want to know more about the “robustly overseen” program, especially in terms of cost effectiveness.

Even if the program was cost effective (the air marshals don’t believe it is — and they should know), the tactics deployed would not be any less questionable. The TSA engaged in direct surveillance of passengers with no reasonable, articulable reason for doing so. The program’s very existence is lawsuit bait, even if passengers and activists may have trouble showing they have standing to sue.

And the nonexistent “robust oversight” the TSA cited in defense of a program its oversight hadn’t heard of now actually exists and will be performing some actual oversight.

“We have conducted a bipartisan investigation over the past three years, and it is now time to convert our oversight findings into concrete reforms to help improve TSA’s ability to carry out its vital security missions,” Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the incoming chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, told the Globe.

Representative Bennie G. Thompson of Mississippi, the incoming chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, said oversight hearings next year will aim to “ensure TSA meets all privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties requirements.”

The TSA is definitely still going to surveil some travelers. It just won’t be doing at the scale it was with “Quiet Skies.” And it will no longer be able to justify this pervasive surveillance with specious criteria like “passenger slept during flight.” It will have to show its work. Even better, it will have to show the work it’s already done to a number of agencies and government representatives. And it doesn’t even have a single win in the “busted terrorist” column to justify its actions.

Filed Under: , , , ,

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “TSA Will No Longer Engage In Suspicionless, Cross-Country Surveillance Of Airplane Passengers”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Agreed – there is no way they are going to stop spying upon their own citizens. They do this because they are afraid of their own citizens, afraid said citizens will find out how much they are being screwed over by those in power. If they had nothing to fear, they would have nothing to hide .. at least that is what they keep telling the minions.

Anonymous Coward says:

The Facebook Corollary

How can we be certain that this espionage program will really go away? Of course the TSA was basically forced to officially end “Quiet Skies” because it was publicly exposed, but what’s to prevent them from simply putting together another secret spy operation that operates similarly but under a different name?

Isn’t this sort of like accepting Mark Zuckerberg’s (latest) apology and taking his word that because “program X/Y/Z” has been discontinued, it means that we can now trust Facebook never to violate their customers’ privacy ever again? No, of course they’ll find a way to secretly violate your privacy, just as big corporations and governments always do.

Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Lies, damned lies, and without the statistics.

Lie to me once, maybe it’s an error. Lie to me twice, it leads somewhere. Lie to me three times a pattern emerges. Lie to me consistently it becomes more than a conspiracy. It becomes reason to believe the exact opposite.

When is the government going to understand that they, both collectively and individually, have lied so many times that there is little underlying basis for anyone to believe whatever it is they have to say?

Anonymous Coward says:

Blue Calm just ahead

The Boston Globe has some good news to report: the TSA is apparently dismantling the ["Quiet Skies"] program the paper exposed.

Yeah, yeah, too bad it’s being replaced by the new program called "Placid Blue". It’ll be the same old, same old, just a name change so the danged press will dry up and blow away.

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...