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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Filed Under: airport security, gao, quiet skies, surveillance, tsa

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 5 Nov 2019 @ 5:04pm


    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.

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