Air traffic controllers have been tacitly monitoring a small number of US passengers for years and reporting suspicious flight behavior, even if these people have no known terrorist links, the Road Safety Department said on Sunday.
Under a sensitive, previously secret program called "Quiet Skies," since 2010, the TSA has assigned Marshals to identify passengers who set flags and make secret observations of their actions based on travel stories or other factors, including behaviors such as sweating or use the toilet over and over again – as they fly between US destinations.
The Boston Globe first revealed the existence of the Quiet Skies program on Sunday. In response to questions, TSA spokesman James O. Gregory offered more details on the origins and objectives of the program and compared it with other law enforcement measures that require officers to closely monitor individuals or areas prone to crime.
"We are no different than the policeman at the corner who is placed there because there is an increased likelihood that something could happen," said Gregory. "If you're in a tube at 30,000 feet … it makes sense to get someone there."
The TSA declined to provide complete information on how individuals are selected for Quiet Skies and how the program works ,
Under the TSA, the Program uses travel records and other information to identify passengers who are subject to additional controls at airports and are observed in flight by air traffic controllers who report to the Agency on their activities.
The initiative raises new questions about the privacy of ordinary Americans as they routinely travel across the United States and across the broad network of law enforcement agencies to keep air travel safe.
Gregory said that the program should not sort passengers by race or religion and should not be considered as surveillance, because the agency does not, for example, listen to the calls of passengers or follow the designated people near airports.
But during the observation of passengers who are marked as passengers of the "Quiet Skies", Marshals Use an agency checklist to record passenger behavior: Did he or she sleep during the flight? Did he or she use a cell phone?
"The program analyzes information about a passenger's driving behavior, taking into account the overall picture," Gregory said, adding "an additional air safety defense line."
"When that person does all the stuff, and the plane lands safely, and they move on, the behavior is noticed, but they are not approached or arrested," said Gregory.
He declined to say if the program resulted in arrests or incidents
Hugh Handeyside, senior attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union National Security Project, urged the TSA to provide passengers with more information about the program ,
"Such surveillance not only makes no sense of a huge waste of taxpayers' money and raises a number of constitutional issues," he said. "These concerns and the need for transparency are all the more acute as the TSA uses unreliable and unscientific techniques to screen and monitor travelers who have not done anything wrong."
The TSA, which shortly after Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, screens on average more than 2 million passengers per day.
While tasked with a major public security mission, the agency has sometimes been publicly blamed for intrusion and abuse at airport checkpoints. It was alleged that little was done to improve safety while the passengers were searched or questioned.
In 2015, the US Department of Homeland Security Inspector General found that undercover agents were able to carry fake bombs past TSA screeners in 95 percent of cases. A year later, the flying public was in turmoil over long queues to get through security checks.
But TSA officials have said that ensuring public safety while keeping passengers moving makes their job difficult.
"We have a No Missing Mission," former TSA Administrator Peter Neffinger told congressmen in 2015.
The agency was also criticized for treating Muslims and other minorities who complained during their travels Media reports revealed that the agency had put together a secret list of unruly passengers.
Passengers may be quoted as belonging to someone on the government's no-fly list or other government databases designed to prevent terrorist attacks Skies to be Selected 19659023] "This program raises a whole range of civil rights and profiling concerns," said Faiza Patel, co-director of the Brennan Center of the New York University School of Law.
Critics say the watch lists and Government databases are too broad and contain outdated and erroneous information.  The no-fly list, for example, grew from about 16 people in September 2001 to 64,000 in 2014.
But Patel, a lawyer, said law enforcement officials are generally free to monitor individuals unless they do to do on the basis of criteria such as ethnicity.
Fredrick Kunkle contributed to this report.