Secret Surveillance of Americans Traveling by Air Found Nothing, Will Continue

Air marshals have snooped on about 5,000 of us since March-and not because they suspected any of those people of specific crimes.


Airport arrival board
Matthias Balk/dpa/picture-alliance/Newscom

Federal air marshals have secretly stalked about 5,000 Americans since March. None of these people were suspected of any specific criminal or terrorist activities, and the surveillance didn't turn up any evidence of criminal or terrorist activities.

Nevertheless, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) says the program should and will continue.

The Boston Globe reported over the weekend that the TSA's program, called "Quiet Skies," tracks fliers who weren't even on terror watch lists, based on a vague concept of suspicious behavior. The air marshals themselves object to the program, and their union would like them assigned elsewhere rather than having to follow these people around. Some members of Congress have complained too, saying they weren't been informed about the launch of this program. So this week, TSA officials have been having closed-door meetings with various lawmakers.

The TSA wouldn't acknowledge the program existed until the Globe revealed it. Now that it's been publicized, they're quick to defend it. Spokesman James Gregory said Monday, "The program analyzes information on a passenger's travel patterns, and through a system of checks and balances, to include robust oversight, effectively adds an additional line of defense to aviation security."

It has other defenders, too. The Washington Post's editorial board gave it a quasi-stamp of approval with the "If it's done right" disclaimer, noting that this system would allow the TSA to deploy air marshals to keep track of suspicious people rather than sticking them on large airliners to keep tabs on entire flights even when there's no sign that anything may happen:

Among other things, the marshals employ behavior detection techniques similar to those that TSA agents use to evaluate all passengers at security checkpoints, such as watching for signs of excessive nervousness. Since airliners are spaces where no one expects privacy, it is unlikely the marshals' scrutiny constitutes an illegal search. If the 90 days pass without incident, the scrutinized passengers are removed from the list and their files are closed and later purged, the TSA spokesman said.

The editorial highlights a behavior that the average person would find suspicious—"excessive nervousness." But in practice, the TSA "behavior detection techniques" can find just about any behavior that anybody normally exhibits at an airport to be suspicious. As Elizabeth Nolan Brown noted on Monday, suspicion can be triggered by such behaviors as boarding late, sleeping on flights, or simply sweating.

ReasonTV pointed out the absurdly contradictory triggers in the TSA's behavior detection systems. The short version: We're all potential terrorists no matter what we do at the airport. But the longer version is funnier to watch:

In any case, the fact that this secret surveillance of 5,000 Americans uncovered nothing actionable is a sign that it is not, in fact, being "done right."

NEXT: Sarah Jeong Probably Doesn't Hate White People, But Mocking Them Is an Easy Way to Prove You're Woke

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. …the surveillance didn’t turn up any evidence of criminal or terrorist activities.

    A watched pot never boils, Shackfrod.

    1. Who the fuck would want boiled pot anyway? I suppose cops could include the weight of the water in the press release and indictment, and charge you with destruction of evidence as it evaporated.

  2. I don’t mind if they track me. Because I feel that at least it keeps them out of making trouble for a little while.

    1. That’s pretty damn funny, in a very sad way.

  3. I suppose you’d have us shut down every program that hasn’t done any good yet. Quitter talk!

    1. Since the SCOTUS allows “sobriety checkpoints” that catch between 1 and 3 percent of drivers, who are actually impeded in their free travel, I doubt this practice will be determined illegal.
      If the people, who are being surveilled don’t know – obviously since no one has complained – what’s the harm.

      1. The harm is that it violates people’s privacy, which is bad regardless of what they do with the information. It’s just like how the NSA even collecting metadata is unconstitutional, even if the courts say otherwise.

        The real solution is to abolish the TSA, keep securing cockpit doors, encourage passengers to fight back against hijackers (which they’ve been shown to do already), and go back to when we could fly on planes anonymously. But people are too scared and don’t want liberty, even though this is supposed to be ‘the land of the free and the home of the brave’.

  4. In any case, the fact that this secret surveillance of 5,000 Americans uncovered nothing actionable is a sign that it is not, in fact, being “done right.”

    The fact that they didn’t catch any terrorists is proof that the terrorists are better at hiding than they thought. Probably need to start by, at a minimum, doubling the manpower and tripling the budget. They need higher salaries to attract the best people, plus the latest in high-tech counter-espionage tools like night-vision goggles that look like Raybans, GPS trackers that can be shot at the suspect through a blowgun that looks like a pen, miniature cameras and recording devices that look like common household objects, and high-powered sports cars that shoot a variety of lasers, grease, smoke, flame, and RPG’s out the flip-up license plate on the rear.

    1. If you haven’t done anything wrong, you have no reason to object to being surveilled. That’s why the TSA strictly limits surveillance to people who haven’t done anything wrong.

  5. Anyone with hyperhidrosis is a member of ISIS and should be shot on sight.

  6. Although it sounds like great fun, even groping strangers can become tedious after the first 10,000 or so. Letting TSA agents play Jr. G-man breaks the monotony and improves moral. Who could object to that?

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.