The Transportation Security Administration is expanding their surveillance and search efforts beyond the airport.
In late July, The Boston Globe exposed the Transportation Security Administration’s secret surveillance program known as “Quiet Skies”. According to documents obtained by the Boston Globe and interviews with air marshals, the program calls on officials to shadow travelers who do not pose a threat. The program claims to target individuals who are not on the No-Fly list and have not been accused of any specific crime but might potentially pose a threat to national security. The program reportedly began in 2011.
The Globe reported:
“The previously undisclosed program, called “Quiet Skies,” specifically targets travelers who “are not under investigation by any agency and are not in the Terrorist Screening Data Base,” according to a Transportation Security Administration bulletin in March.”
Some of the behavior air marshals are being trained to spot include “excessive fidgeting,” “excessive perspiration” or having a “cold, penetrating stare”. Once a passenger is flagged they will receive enhanced screening and stay on the Quite Skies list for up to 90 days. Additionally, CBS News reports that “leaked document and sources” confirm that the TSA is watching up to 50 domestic passengers a day across the United States as part of the Quiet Skies program.
TSA Administrator David Pekoske told CBS News that if there is a heightened risk with a particular passenger, “providing some mitigation or some risk management on the flight is a very important and very reassuring thing to me.” Pekoske said he believes the program “makes an awful lot of sense”. Meanwhile, Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts expressed his concern in a recent letter to the TSA, calling the program “the very definition of ‘Big Brother'”.
Since The Boston Globe first broke the story, it has been reported that the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General will conduct an investigation into Quiet Skies to see if the program complies with privacy laws. I wouldn’t hold my breath for any consequences for the officials involved or major changes to the program.
At the same time as the TSA’s surveillance program is being exposed the controversial agency continues to expand their security operations across the United States. Although TSA operations began in American airports, over the last several years the agency has quietly been expanding into other venues. With a recent announcement between the TSA and the Los Angeles Metro, Los Angeles is poised to become the first city with body scanners in place on the city’s subway system. A press release notes that the TSA and Metro are partnering to “deploy a new advanced portable passenger screening technology that will help detect weapon and explosive device security threats”.
Metro purchased portable terahertz millimeter wave passenger screening devices manufactured by Thrusvision. The Thruvision units come with software that quickly screens individuals for hidden threats, including both metallic and non-metallic objects. The Washington Post reports that Metro spokesman Dave Sotero noted the scanners cost about $100,000 and can screen more than 2,000 passengers an hour. The Post describes the equipment as a machine “housed in a black and chrome trunk-like case that has wheels” and a display which features a split screen showing a live video feed and a “generic avatar” of the person being scanned.
Metro security chief Alex Wiggins told the Los Angeles Times his team is being careful not to violate passenger’s rights. “One thing we have to be sensitive to is the 4th Amendment, unreasonable search and seizure,” Wiggins said. “We will make it very, very clear that individuals are entering an area where they’re subject to search.”
Wiggins says passengers can opt out of the scanning. However, passengers who choose not to be scanned risk not being able to enter the station and ride the metro. “That means not taking transit that day,” he said.
Over the last decade, privacy advocates and activists have warned (super old video of some of my first activism regarding the TSA and body scanners) about the expansion of the TSA’s powers and the body scanning devices. Those who warned the TSA would expand from searching at the airport to other public venues were labeled paranoid. Anyone who challenged the notion that the TSA was the best way to prevent terrorism was labeled a kook or anti-American.
For those who have been paying attention, the agenda was obvious. In fact, in 2011 Forbes reported that “newly uncovered documents show that as early as 2006, the Department of Homeland Security has been planning pilot programs to deploy mobile scanning units that can be set up at public events and in train stations, along with mobile x-ray vans capable of scanning pedestrians on city streets”. The documents came from Freedom of Information Act Requests filed by the Electronic Privacy Information Center. Ginger McCall, an attorney with EPIC, compared the scans to an officer coming up and searching an individual without probable cause or consent. “This is the digital equivalent,” McCall said at the time.
The DHS has been successful in their implementation of deploying mobile scanning units at public events, including train stations and the Super Bowl. These efforts have been conducted by the TSA’s Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response (VIPR) squads. Despite this growth of tyrannical, invasive measures, there has been some success in resisting the violations. In 2012, the TSA launched a national program they called BUSSAFE which involved partnering with local Metro companies, city officials, and local police to randomly search the person and belongings of random passengers. The TSA chose Houston as the inaugural city to roll out this program.
Thankfully, The Houston Free Thinkers were able to organize local activists and concerned Houstonians to show up at Metro’s monthly board meeting. We quickly took over the meeting with comment after comment warning the company not to play with the TSA. After a second emergency meeting Metro announced they would put an end to the program. In less than a couple weeks we were able to force the federal government and a local corporation to back off. The activism even landed me an interview on the Alex Jones show. My point is this: we can still have an effect in disempowering those who support and work with tyrants by opting out of their services and supporting those who are in line with our values AND when necessary, confronting these systems of power to let them know we will not stand by quietly. Otherwise, these type of surveillance measures and violations of basic freedoms will continue unabated.