TSA’s ‘Quiet Skies’ operates under the notion of guilty until proven innocent

American citizens run the risk of being surveilled when flying.

August 9, 2018

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) recently implemented an airport and in-flight surveillance program known as “Quiet Skies.” According to TSA, the purpose of the program is to decrease threats from “unknown or partially known terrorists and to identify and provide enhanced screening to higher risk travelers before they board an aircraft.” Agency documents reflect that nearly 40 to 50 passengers on daily domestic flights are under Quiet Skies with around 35 meeting the criteria to be followed and surveilled by US air marshals.

Travelers in question remain on the Quiet Skies watch list for up to 90 days or three encounters and are not notified a) when they are placed on the watch list or b) if their activity or behavior is being monitored. This information can then be circulated outside of the Department of Homeland Security if TSA air marshals observe “significant derogatory information.”

In a statement from TSA, Quiet Skies is defined as a necessary preventative measure. “These are people who perhaps haven't done anything previously to put them on a terrorist watch list, but perhaps there are things ... that make us concerned about their future activities or actions. Though TSA did not speak to the nature of the exact criteria for finding “unknown or partially unknown terrorists,” leaked documents to the The Boston Globe reflect that Quiet Skies operates within a vague set of parameters. The partial behavioral checklist screens flyers on everything from excessive perspiration and exaggerated emotions to flight class and in-flight conversation. If your eyes are open and staring, your bags are checked, or if TSA determines the use or lack of curbside pickup as a threat, this could place a flyer on the official watch list. TSA is institutionalizing a fear-based program that seeks to find a needle in a haystack -- rather than use resources to investigate real criminal activity.

Though TSA remains adamant that Quiet Skies receives necessary ethical and legal oversight to ensure all Constitutional rights are upheld, many civil liberties and civil rights activists are still concerned.

According to Professor Jonathan Turley of George Washington University Law, “If this was about foreign citizens, the government would have considerable power. But if it’s US citizens—US citizens don’t lose their rights simply because they are in an airplane at 30,000 feet.”

Congress has failed to find evidence that TSA’s $800 million budget has lead to effective deterrence and counterterrorism. Additionally, a TSA air marshal has claimed that under “the Department of Justice’s standards, there is no cause to be conducting these secret missions.” So what is the purpose of this invasive and potentially illegal Quiet Skies operation?

People of color, American Muslims and those perceived to be Muslim are already disproportionately targeted by TSA and subjected to excessive screening and unnecessary monitoring in the airport. Given the general lack of transparency regarding Quiet Skies, civil society must press the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to answer how and why their taxpayer dollars are being used for a program to spy on Americans. The American people are never truly safe when their civil liberties are at risk.


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