Reason Roundup

Government Spying While You're Flying Is Getting Worse: Reason Roundup

Plus: Pennsylvania fights downloadable gun-printing plans and immigration detainees seek religious freedom.


Andre Jenny Stock Connection Worldwide/Newscom

A grim picture of privacy and civil liberties at the airport. Under the "Quiet Skies" program, federal air marshals are targeting people who "are not under investigation by any agency and are not in the Terrorist Screening Data Base," according to an internal Transportation Security Administration (TSA) bulletin from March.

These agents "have begun following ordinary US citizens not suspected of a crime or on any terrorist watch list and collecting extensive information about their movements and behavior," reports The Boston Globe. The memo says the program aims to catch threats "posed by unknown or partially known terrorists," but insiders say there's little consistency or criteria for how or why travelers get tracked.

TSA officials would not confirm to the paper that the program exists. But documents reviewed by the paper show that "thousands of unsuspecting Americans have been subjected to targeted airport and inflight surveillance, carried out by small teams of armed, undercover air marshals," writes the Globe's Jana Winter.

Signs of suspicious behavior include:

  • being "abnormally aware of surroundings" (which apparently includes things like boarding last or watching the boarding area "from afar");
  • exhibiting supposed "behavioral indicators" of up-to-no-goodness (including sweating, having body odor, rubbing one's hands together, face touching, or "other"); and
  • sleeping on a flight, either "briefly" or "for most of" it.

Federal agents are also instructed to take notes on whether a traveler has lost or gained weight, changed his or her hair style, shaved, grown a beard, or gotten any tattoos or piercings since last being spied on; whether a traveler checked baggage; whether a traveler possessed a phone and or computer; whether a traveler left the airport via tax, bus, private vehicle, public transit, or a rental car; and how many times he or she go to the bathroom. Winter adds:

Deploying air marshals to gather intelligence on civilians not on a terrorist watch list is a new assignment, one that some air marshals say goes beyond the mandate of the US Federal Air Marshal Service. Some also worry that such domestic surveillance might be illegal. Between 2,000 and 3,000 men and women, so-called flying FAMs, work the skies.

It's not just federal employees who are spying while you're flying. The Department of Homeland Security has been training airline and airport staff on how to "spot the signs" of human trafficking, with a list about as asinine and broad as the above TSA criteria. So far, this has led to an array of travelers getting harassed and detained because some airline attendant had a "hunch" that interracial families are probably human traffickers.

The latest example, told in full absurdist splendor by the Daily Mail, involves Hawaiian Airlines flight attendant Wesley Hirata informing the authorities that there was an Asian man with three Caucasian girls on a flight. The Mail calls Hirata and her colleagues "heroes" for "alerting cops to [a] human trafficking suspect who boarded a flight with three young girls."

Two of the "young girls" were adults. The FBI investigated and found no evidence of anything bad going on. "Regardless," the Mail reports, "Hirata has said he's pleased" with himself for calling the FBI on some totally innocent travelers.


Why you can't download 3D-printed gun plans in Pennsylvania. After Texas nonprofit Defense Distributed published plans for 3D-printing an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, Pennsylvania authorities filed a lawsuit trying to block residents from downloading the it. In an emergency hearing least night, a federal court agreed that Defense Distributed should block Pennsylvanians from accessing the plans, at least for now.

"In New Jersey, officials also had sought to block downloading of the plans for that state's residents by means of a cease-and-desist letter," notes The Inquirer. "But Defense Distributed challenged that effort on Sunday by filing a federal lawsuit in Texas."

Defense Distributed Director Cody Wilson told the paper: "Americans have the right to this data. We have the right to share it. Pennsylvania has no right to come in and tell us what we can and can't share on the internet."


New lawsuits accuse federal immigration facilities of quashing freedom of religion. Public defender Lisa Hay filed the suit on behalf of 123 asylum-seekers intercepted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents on May 31 and taken to the Sheridan Federal Correctional Facility in Sheridan, Oregon.

The suit claims that the prison is refusing to allow religious accommodations for Sikh and Hindu detainees. "The Sikh detainees have not been allowed to wear turbans and instead have either been uncovered or forced to make do with towels, t-shirts, hats, or other inadequate coverings," states the suit, and Hindu prisoners are reportedly being denied religious texts.

Hay has also filed petitions on behalf of many of the asylum seekers, alleging a litany of abuses and poor conditions at the facility.

"Here we have come to save our lives but I think we will die here in jail," one asylum-seeker is quoted in an affidavit.