Economy

"Quiet Skies": When a federal air marshal shadows you

The Transportation Security Authority (TSA) confirmed the existence of the domestic surveillance program Sunday, saying marshals have been flagging up suspicious behavior since 2010.

Federal air marshals have been secretly tracking dozens of American travelers each day who aren't listed on government watch lists or suspected of a crime, The Boston Globe reported this weekend.

According to the Globe, undercover air marshals have been following passengers at an airport and on a flight, documenting behaviour like excessive fidgeting, perspiration, face touching and the use of a smartphone.

Every American is automatically screened for the Quiet Skies program when he or she enters the country and, if included, can be tracked on domestic flights, the Globe reported.

Travellers are not notified when they have been added to the "Quiet Skies" list, which United States media report contains fewer than 50 people.

US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) spokesman Thomas Kelley, in an emailed response to a query, said the program's objective is to ensure "passengers and flight crew are protected during air travel", and the agency does not take race or religion into account.

Agency spokesman James Gregory said that TSA had previously detailed the Quiet Skies surveillance missions to the committees in May.

"This programme's core design is no different than putting a police officer on a beat where intelligence and other information presents the need for watch and deterrence". The program analyzes information on a passenger's travel patterns, and through a system of checks and balances, to include robust oversight, the program effectively adds an additional line of defense to aviation security.

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In a statement to NBC News, the TSA described "Quiet Skies" as a "practical method of keeping another act of terrorism from occurring at 30,000 feet".

"Cannot make this up", the air marshal wrote in a message.

Bilello added: "Average Americans would not come close to qualifying for inclusion in this program".

George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley says that Quiet Skies could lead to a massive legal battle.

The National Security Agency has already made people skittish about unwarranted and illegal monitoring and you can bet that Quiet Skies will garner the same critiques for the TSA. Additionally, targets may have the same travel patterns as known terrorist suspects or be "possibly affiliated" with someone on a watch list, according to a May bulletin. The program, which launched in March, uses armed federal air marshals to covertly monitor how USA citizens behave on commercial domestic flights.

Officials then look at the data and determine whether the passenger should be observed by air marshals.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations called on TSA to abandon the program. He also denied that the program qualified as "surveillance" since the TSA wasn't listening to targets' calls or trailing them outside of the airports.

He also defended the role of the air marshal program, calling it "necessary if we're going to avoid another 9/11". Up to 3,000 agents work the skies. A 2017 Government Accountability Office report found the agency has no information about its effectiveness in deterring attacks.