The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) claims it will no longer track the normal movements of people who aren't suspected of any wrongdoing. So while the agency can and likely will keep treating law-abiding Americans like terrorists, it will stop taking note of such supposedly suspicious behaviors as using the restroom, sweating, and sleeping on a flight.
Federal Air Marshal Director David Kohl tells The Boston Globe that the agency will no longer track "routine passenger behaviors on a plane that would be seen as a normal behavior."
Why would the TSA focus on such harmless activities in the first place? It was all part of the "Quiet Skies" surveillance program, which the agency launched in 2012 and expanded earlier this year. Under the program, the TSA tries to identify passengers who might pose a security risk. Federal air marshals then follow them around both at the airport and on the flight, keeping track of their every move. The marshals would submit detailed reports describing their findings.
The Globe obtained a check list that air marshals were supposed to fill out while stalking those passengers. Signs of suspicious behavior included "being abnormally aware of surroundings," "excessive fidgeting" or "perspiration," "rapid eye blinking," and having a "cold penetrating stare." Marshals were also directed to document any change in appearance "from information provided" (i.e., the last time the passenger was spied on), to give "detailed descriptions of any electronic devices in subject's possession," and to note whether the passenger went to the bathroom and/or slept for part or most of the flight.
People with checkered pasts weren't the only ones under surveillance. Each and every American citizen flying on a plane was eligible to be selected for the program, and roughly 5,000 passengers were tracked from March to July. Those list included American citizens who were not under federal investigation and not on a terror watch list.
The TSA wouldn't reveal how it decided who to target. So you'll just have to wonder why air marshals extensively tracked and intrusively searched a Virginia mom whose only offense was flying to Turkey to take some arts-and-crafts courses. Pointlessly documenting the every move of such hardened criminals led to a grand total of zero arrests, as TSA Administrator David Pekoske admitted to a Senate committee in September.
Quiet Skies is not going away for good. Some law-abiding passengers will still be surveilled; air marshals just won't write down every tiny thing they see. "Among the recent changes, air marshals are now supposed to submit observational details only if they see their Quiet Skies subject do something suspicious, the Globe reports, "though there appears to be no guidance on what merits 'suspicious' activity."
This development is a step in the right direction, though it clearly doesn't go far enough. It won't stop the TSA from molesting children at the airport, forcing a mother to waste her breast milk, or otherwise harassing harmless travelers. But maybe, just maybe, the agency is getting a smidge better at evaluating risk.