GAO Report: TSA Has No Idea How Effective Its Suspicionless Surveillance Program Is

from the results-to-be-reported-the-moment-there-are-actually-any-results dept

The TSA’s “Quiet Skies” program continues and it doesn’t appear to be making flying any safer. The program first exposed last year by the Boston Globe involved the surveillance of travelers for doing things like looking in shop windows or changing direction while walking through airports.

None of the people surveilled were on any terrorist watchlists. According to the TSA, it was hoping to find “unknown terrorists” by using a broad list of “suspicious” behavior to subject a greater number of travelers to additional screening and the apparent company of a flying air marshal (FAM).

The TSA thought it was great. The air marshals tasked with surveilling random people thought it was a waste of time and resources, if not an unconstitutional use of their powers. Backlash from the public and the air marshals themselves led the TSA to curtail the program. It promised not to surveill people for engaging in normal behavior the TSA had unilaterally deemed suspicious. There was also evidence the program was completely useless, as none of the 5,000 people targeted by “Quiet Skies” over a 6-month period in 2018 had gone on to do anything that air marshals deemed suspicious or worthy of further scrutiny.

The program lives on, unfortunately. The TSA may have scaled back its long list of “suspicious” behaviors, but it’s still subjecting an unknown number of travelers to additional screening and surveillance, even if they’re not tied to known terrorists or anyone on the government’s multiple terrorist databases.

And it still doesn’t work. It’s still operational, I suppose, but the Government Accountability Office says the TSA doesn’t know whether the program is effective. The program — which has been running for nearly a decade now — still hasn’t been examined by the TSA to see whether it’s actually doing anything to improve air security. From the report [PDF]:

We found that TSA coordinates reviews of Silent Partner and Quiet Skies through quarterly meetings and notifies an expanded set of DHS and TSA stakeholders—including DHS Traveler Redress Inquiry Program and the Federal Air Marshal Service—of rule changes as required under the Act. We also found that TSA has not identified a means to comprehensively measure rule effectiveness.

The TSA’s reason for not following up on the program’s effectiveness? It’s just too much work.

TSA officials explained that they had not yet fully assessed the rules’ effectiveness because it was difficult to measure.

Difficult? Maybe. Impossible? No, says the GAO.

TSA has access to data—such as the outcomes of enhanced screening of Silent Partner and Quiet Skies passengers at airport checkpoints—that could be explored to better assess rule effectiveness. Exploring additional data sources could help TSA refine and supplement the agency’s existing efforts to measure program effectiveness.

The TSA may move forward with the GAO’s recommendation it start actually measuring effectiveness. Then again, it’s spent nine years not measuring it, so any progress will be on the same timescale.

TSA is currently reviewing the draft report and is scheduled to provide any comments by early November 2019.

At which point the TSA is free to reject the GAO’s suggestion and continue to perform presumably useless screening and surveillance for the rest of forever.

That’s not the only thing the TSA isn’t following up on. The agency likes spending tax dollars on new security gear, whether it’s needed or not.

Our review of TSA acquisition documents found that TSA considers risk at the beginning of the screening technologies acquisition process. However, TSA officials could not provide an example of when risk information for specific airports had directly influenced decisions about where and in what order to deploy screening technologies to airports in the recent past.

Then the agency deploys the tech and promptly forgets about it.

We also found that TSA does not ensure that screening technologies continue to meet detection requirements after they have been deployed to airports, when performance can degrade over time.

The TSA’s process involves certifying the equipment prior to deployment and periodic calibration to ensure the tech is in “minimally operational.” The GAO says this misses the point: the tech should be tested more frequently and, more importantly, assessed periodically to see if the deployed equipment still addresses the perceived risks present at that location as those may also change over time.

The TSA is mostly a reactive agency, one that responds to each attempted attack it’s failed to thwart by subjecting travelers to another layer of screening annoyance. Its proactive efforts — “Quiet Skies” and behavioral detection teams — are somehow even worse. The TSA doesn’t know what it’s looking for because it hasn’t prevented a terrorist attack yet. Its shotgun approach to screening and surveillance isn’t likely to head off future attacks but the TSA seems content to settle for collateral damage.

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Comments on “GAO Report: TSA Has No Idea How Effective Its Suspicionless Surveillance Program Is”

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This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
rangda (profile) says:

Re: Re: Still Trying

What is truly mind-boggling is how large a percentage of the population that actually reasons that way.

The only thing mind boggling is that more people don’t do it. Faith is the lazy person’s way out. If you are in a situation you don’t like, faith lets you do nothing and expect it to change. If things don’t work out, it gives you an out to avoid looking at your own personal faults. It lets you justify actions that deep down you know are morally wrong.

It also allows you to be easily manipulated and controlled by those associated with the object of your faith, but that’s more of a benefit for people who manipulate the faithful rather than the faithful themselves.

aerinai (profile) says:

Security Theater is subjective by nature

This makes people safer as much as they believe it makes them safer… So for the GAO to ask for hard numbers must be really appalling to the directors of the play!

All the world’s a stage, and all the TSA men and women merely players: they scan the luggage and the liquids; and one man in his time frisks many parts, his actions lawful and lauded.

Anonymous Coward says:

I used to walk through airports very conscious that I was being monitored. I’d only glance in the stores if I was looking for something, and only go in if I actually planned to buy (or at least seriously look at) something. I practiced never doubling back, but always keeping up the "policeman’s stroll" when wandering a terminal waiting for my plane to arrive.

Then at some point I decided it would be more interesting to see what actually happens if I do the suspicious stuff, as they wouldn’t actually have enough to grab me off my flight and interrogate me / stick me on some long-term watch list. So on a few flights where I wasn’t in a hurry, I started doubling back, loitering near garbage cans, putting my bag down and then picking it up again, looking directly at video cameras, etc.

End result? On one of those flights, I picked up an Air Marshall tail, at which point I calmly wandered back to my gate and sat down for the rest of the wait. For the rest — nothing.

And it seems to me that if I could do both of these things, so could people with malicious intent: just set someone up as the target, bumbling about the terminal. Then all eyes are on them, leaving the actual terrorist/smuggler/etc. to calmly walk in to the terminal, do what they came to do, and carry on as normal.

Maybe now that facial recognition is implemented and the background video processing is much more automated they could actually get some wins from this sort of surveillance — but I doubt it; it would still be just too much work.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re:

"Maybe now that facial recognition is implemented and the background video processing is much more automated they could actually get some wins from this sort of surveillance — but I doubt it; it would still be just too much work."

Assuming it works which is unlikely. The false positives ensure that with every thousand individuals who get scanned at least one, probably more, will suddenly get linked to a "Kill on Sight" warning issued by some agency or other. At random.

That, essentially, is why EVERY tech expert not actively vested in trying to sell this type of tech is adamant that this type of tech brings no good and much harm.

Anonymous Coward says:

Hmmm I think just about everything about the TSA is supicious.

Can we create an federally funded agency to harrass TSA agents as they enter the airport, detain then when ever they feel like it, and stalk them? It would be called TTSA, TSA security Agency. Of course it’s activities wouldn’t be limited to that, that’s just all I could be bothered to type right now (an attitude that should permeate the new agency as well).

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

because it was difficult to get additional funding after admitting the program was useless.

I say we should replace them with a Ministry of Silly Walks. It was said to cost £348,000,000/year in 1970, roughly equivalent to £5,500,000,000/year or $7,100,000,000/year today. The TSA, by contrast, takes $7,780,000,000/year. Neither accomplishes any important task, but we’d save money and make people happier—safer too, because several thousand people (one 9/11) per year die avoiding the TSA.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

"They need terrorists, drug dealers, smugglers, ect as the samples. Normal people who aren’t known before or after the fact to be one of those things is throw away data."

The reason the program was evaluated as useless is because any algorithm with ANY percentage of error has a scary tendency to identify those normal people as terrorists and other types of incredibly dangerous people.

That’s how false positives work – a 99% accuracy rate doesn’t just mean that the program identifies 99 out of a 100 terrorists. It also means 1% of all the NORMAL people to get scanned ALSO identifies as terrorists.

I’m pretty sure the TSA knew full well the program was a bust when their shiny new tech insisted they had a hundred horrible criminals on their airport on an average jam-packed day.

bhull242 (profile) says:

A reminder of how BS the TSA’s “behavioral detection” is

Here is the TSA’s list of indicators for female suicide bombers:

Single, married, mothers or grandmothers

i.e. all women

High school and college students
Working professionals such as lawyers, journalists, or medical

So, being a young adult or having a profession is suspicious. That basically just eliminates infants, children, the unemployed, and nonprofessional workers. Also, we have journalists being singled out, which isn’t really consistent with a free press.

Devout or non-devout in religious beliefs

So basically anyone with religious beliefs, which makes this religious discrimination. And while I can maybe see religious devotion as an indicator, why would not being devout be suspicious?

Intelligent, charming, and attractive

So anyone you want to marry or fuck is suspicious?

Very active in their cause

This is honestly the only one (other than being devout in religious, though that has its own problems) that I could see as a potential indicator. But it’s incredibly vague about what causes would be included. What if someone’s cause is opposition to war and violence?

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