Are you being watched in the air?

US air marshals have started following ordinary travellers not suspected of a crime or on any terrorist watch list and collecting extensive information about their movements and behaviour under a new surveillance program that is drawing criticism.

The previously undisclosed program, called ‘Quiet Skies’, specifically targets travellers who “are not under investigation by any agency and are not in the Terrorist Screening Data Base”, according to a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) bulletin in March.

The internal bulletin describes the program’s goal as thwarting threats to commercial aircraft “posed by unknown or partially known terrorists”, and gives the agency broad discretion over which air travellers to focus on and how closely they are tracked, according to a report in the Boston Globe.

US Government documents show that thousands of ordinary travellers have been subjected to targeted airport and inflight surveillance, carried out by small teams of armed, undercover air marshals.

The teams document whether passengers fidget, use a computer, have a ‘jump’ in their Adam’s apple or a ‘cold penetrating stare’, among other behaviours listed in the records.

Air marshals note these observations – minute-by-minute – in two separate reports and send this information back to the TSA.

The program relies on 15 rules to screen passengers, according to a May agency bulletin, and the criteria appear broad: “rules may target” people whose travel patterns or behaviours match those of known or suspected terrorists, or people “possibly affiliated” with someone on a watch list.

Is spying on regular travellers a bridge too far in security or a necessary evil in stopping terrorist attacks?

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Written by Ben


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