TSA’s secret ‘Quiet Skies’ program seems designed to target trans travelers

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A new report has found that the Transportation Security Administration has a secret “Quiet Skies” program that essentially targets any domestic traveler who has ever exhibited a human behavior as a potential terrorism threat. Among the actions that flag you as a potential risk are:

  • observing the boarding gate from afar
  • changing your clothes at the airport
  • changing your direction in the airport
  • sleeping on a flight
  • having a “cold, penetrating stare”

The program specifically targets travelers who “are not under investigation by any agency and are not in the Terrorist Screening Data Base.” So why are armed air marshals collecting extensive information on average American travelers who might be nervous about flying?

The program has attracted criticism for being intrusive and a waste of TSA resources. But for trans travelers, the news of the eight-year old program’s existence is another reason for concern about how the TSA treats them.

Last month, thirty members of Congress wrote to the TSA demanding information about the agency’s treatment of trans travelers. A 2015 survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality found that more than 40% of trans travelers surveyed reported some form of intimidation or harassment at the hands of TSA agents.

The letter from Representatives, all of them Democrats, acknowledges that the TSA has made improvements in the process, including better training for agents. But they also note that certain scanners used to screen passengers offers only two choices for gender based on the perception of the agent doing the screening. As a result, trans passengers may be flag for “anomalies” and subject to additional screening.

“More must be done to ensure our nation’s homeland security without compromising the civil rights of transgender processes,” the letter stated.

The Quiet Skies program won’t do anything to calm those concerns. If anything, it allows agents to look for physical characteristics that could well target trans travelers. TSA checkpoints are still a nightmare for trans people, so looking “nervous” could be an immediate flag under the secret domestic surveillance initiative.

“Subject’s appearance was different from information provided” is one cause for being followed. “Apparent altered appearance,” “hair length/style change,” and “Adam’s apple jump” are others.

On its webpage dedicated to trans travelers, TSA says that it is “committed to ensuring all travelers are treated with respect and courtesy.” However, activists have complained for years that the agency has yet to meet that goal. The revelation that TSA has engaged in widespread surveillance of U.S. travelers is proof of just how far it has to go.

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