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They’re Watching Us – But Is It a Bad Thing?

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Thanksgiving holiday travelers at New York's LaGuardia airport (Illustrative photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Thanksgiving holiday travelers at New York’s LaGuardia airport (Illustrative photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

 

Read the story and then take the poll below.

 

Americans don’t take well to being told they are under secret surveillance. Yet, we’re used to whistleblowers revealing the latest government program monitoring our whereabouts.

In the latest of those reports, The Boston Globe broke the story of a previously undisclosed program by the TSA (Transportation Security Administration) called Quiet Skies. Created in 2010, the  program tracks and gathers information on citizens not on terror watchlists or in screening databases for suspicious behavior while traveling.

Below, we present the pros and cons of the program, then ask you to decide: Is Quiet Skies a good idea or not?

CONS

According to the Globe, “Beyond the legalities, some air marshals believe ‘Quiet Skies’ is not a sound use of limited agency resources. Several air marshals, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak publicly, told the Globe the program wastes taxpayer dollars and makes the country less safe because attention and resources are diverted away from legitimate, potential threats.”

Here’s how Quiet Skies works: Any person that fits the program’s profile of suspicious behavior is tracked then followed on their next flight by air marshals who note the person’s phone usage, conversations with other passengers, if they change their clothes and even when they go to the bathroom.

The program targets people not only due to their travel habits, but through observation of small details – nervousness checking in and going through security (people who fidget, clutch their bags too tightly or even have a jump in their Adan’s apple), use a computer or are perceived to have a “cold, penetrating stare.”

In the words of the report, marshals say, “it is a time-consuming and costly assignment…which saps their ability to do more vital law enforcement work.”

All of these attributes, when observed in ordinary citizens – the target group of the program – can be perfectly normal behaviors. Moreover, since the report came out, the TSA refused to say whether the program has thwarted any real threats.

We’re all watched enough. Time to put the resources into tracking real terrorists and get the government off our backs.

 

PROS

Everyone knows that the mark of a professional terrorist organization is to use an operative that doesn’t arouse the suspicion of the authorities, i.e., someone who is not on a terror watchlist or in a security database.

In our post 9/11 world (for which the program was designed), the sophistication of our ability to thwart terror attacks must match that of the terrorists. Terrorists are not sitting around plotting how the next attack can be just like the previous one – we have seen the development of bombs, for example, that fit into a shoe to those that look just like a laptop battery. Innovations abound and they keep on coming.

Despite the protests of some disgruntled air marshals, are we really so naïve to believe that the TSA is really targeting  “ordinary citizens?”

As TSA Public Affairs Assistant Administrator Michael Bilello stated, “Average Americans would not come close to qualifying for inclusion in this program. If you are being observed by a federal air marshal as part of this program, it is because you have a pattern of travel, as well as other activities.”

According to a follow-up report on Quiet Skies by Fox News, “As passengers pass through airport security, a computer algorithm spots those whose travel and activities match with current threat intelligence. A human team then vets the information, and if there is a red flag in the flyer’s background, that person may be followed through their travel and watched.”

Moreover, are we also really so naïve to think that all of us are not under observation by TSA officials from the moment we walk into the airport to when we get on a plane and beyond? Bilello also confirmed that and that such observation was part of normal security procedure.

The sad reality is that we are not the ones that started terrorism, yet the constant threat from those that seek to harm us and our way of life is a fact of the modern world. When it comes to safety, better safe than sorry.

The TSA maintains that Quiet Skies has strong input from legal and civil liberty authorities and Congress has been briefed on the program four times in the last two months.

People need to relax. A few extra eyes on us is nothing new and not an affront to our dignity or constitutional rights.

Please take a moment to answer our poll:

Do you think "Quiet Skies" is a necessary program?

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Meira Svirsky

Meira Svirsky is the editor of ClarionProject.org