“Quiet Skies” Program Allows U.S. Air Marshals To Follow And Monitor Regular Citizens

The Boston Globe reports that the U.S. Transport Security Administration (T.S.A.) has been using air marshals to closely monitor citizens not suspected of any crimes since 2010. The program, known as “Quiet Skies,” tasks air marshals to track individuals at the airport, on the plane and until they leave their destination airport. The individuals tracked, according to a T.S.A. bulletin, “are not under investigation by any agency and are not in the Terrorist Screening Data Base.” The program was only discovered by the Globe in late July.

The T.S.A. has defended the program, calling it “observation, not surveillance.” T.S.A. assistant Michael Bilello claims that Quiet Skies mitigates the risk to passengers and crew, saying that “there are many people who are not on any list or any other program and the threat can come out of the blue.”

The Quiet Skies program has quickly drawn criticism since its reveal. U.S. Senator Edward Markey called it “the very definition of Big Brother”, adding that it “raises serious privacy concerns, and depending on what criteria are being used for selecting individuals to surveil, including ethnicity, nationality, race, or religion, the program may be unconstitutional.” The Council on American-Islamic Relations also expressed concerns that the program may unfairly and disproportionately target Muslim passengers based on racial and religious profiling. Gadeir Abbas, senior litigation attorney, announced that they would challenge the program in federal court, calling it “the latest example of the federal government’s counterproductive and misguided approach to aviation security.”

The T.S.A. has denied any racial or religious profiling, but have not yet disclosed what factors cause them to target an individual. The Globe reports that one individual tracked was a businesswoman who traveled through the Middle East, another a flight attendant, and another a law enforcement officer. Air marshals are expected to make note of whether their targets fidget, use a computer and the license plate of the car they leave the airport in.

Air Marshals themselves have expressed skepticism towards Quiet Skies, dozens of whom told The Globe that it “test[s] the limits of the law and is a waste of resources.” John Casaretti, president of the Air Marshal Association, said that their missions should be focused on recognized intelligence or in support of ongoing federal investigations: “currently the Quiet Skies program does not meet the criteria we find acceptable. The American public would be better served if [air marshals] were instead assigned to airport screening and check-in areas so that active shooter events can be swiftly ended, and violations of federal crimes can be properly and consistently addressed.”

Air marshals have followed and monitored roughly 35 passengers a day, and at least 5,000 individuals have been targeted since March of this year. During a congressional briefing on Thursday, the T.S.A. reported that zero of the targets have been found suspicious enough to warrant further investigation.

In an era when mass surveillance becomes easier and easier, it is necessary for governments to address and properly define the issue of privacy rights. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that no one should be “subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence” and the United States 4th Amendment gives citizens the right to be secure from unreasonable searches without warrant, but Quiet Skies may be able to fall within these boundaries under the argument that the program only observes citizens in a public setting. It remains to be seen whether or not the program is discriminating against individuals based on religion, race or ethnicity. Regardless, Quiet Skies remains another disconcerting example of growing state surveillance around the world.