How is "Quiet Skies" data useful?

This article:


reports that:
“The Transportation Security Administration program, dubbed “Quiet Skies,” has existed since 2010 as an effort to mitigate the threat “posed by unknown or partially-known terrorists” after identifying people based on their travel history or other criteria. Air marshals then track such passengers and document their behavior at airports and in-flight, including how often they go to the bathroom, how many hours they sleep, if a traveler has “strong body odor” or “wide open, staring eyes.

Air marshals tasked with following those in the program then write minute-by-minute accounts of travelers’ behavior and send that information to the TSA.”
How can minute by minute accounts of airline passengers doing nothing wrong be analyzed in any manner to help fight terrorism? As opposed to just collecting data on when they do something wrong, like try to pick a lock or something?

I can’t help mentioning the quote above made me think of the lyrics to Pink Floyd’s song “Nobody Home”:
“I’ve got wide staring eyes
And I’ve got a strong urge to fly”

By analyzing behaviors that are not dangerous, you can then identify anomalies that aren’t “normal” behavior and may lead to something dangerous. At least I assume that’s the idea.

By tracking a bunch of data that looks vaguely kind of related to the problem, you enable the legislators who put the program in place to say “See? I’m Doing Something!”, and thus get re-elected.

“It’s too hard to find a needle in this haystack”

“Add some more hay, maybe that will help”

There was the apocryphal story, back after 9/11 that some group of middle eastern quasi-legitimate fellows had taken a trip across America and engaged in assorted interesting behaviour - like tag-team trips to the bathroom, congregating by the bathroom, etc. Speculation was they were checking out what Air Marshall responses would be to apparently innocent activities like congregating, since they were technically doing nothing wrong - i.e. it was a reconnaissance venture. Of course, it was also likely a combination of Urban Legend and Islamophobic paranoia that was rampant at the time. But of course, nothing is so far-fetched that the TSA won’t investigate it.

The only reason this would be valid would be to catch “dry runs” like allegedly happened before 9-11. But then, it reminds me of the ways to also catch drug mules or any other criminal subset. If they are causing a disturbance, they are suspect. If they appear agitated, that’s suspicious. If they are quiet and subdued, that is suspicious. If they dress funny, that’s suspicious. If they are dressed too normal, that’s suspicious. If they can’t look you in the eye… suspicious. If they are too polite and answer all the questions easily, that’s suspicious. And so on…

(If someone shaves off their beard en route, what are they going to do next time? And how doe their ID not draw a lot more scrutiny having done this?

They don’t care so much about whether “[the] traveler has “strong body odor” or “wide open, staring eyes”. They care about whether the person is collecting dead drops, or meeting with certain people at airport restaurants or parking lots, or who might be picking them up from the airport. Maybe the person suddenly seems to abandon their luggage, which would probably provoke quite the response.

The body odor/eyes stuff is partly BS the government fed to the reporters as misinformation for the sake of opsec, but it isn’t entirely silly. This is very similar to other surveillance programs the government carries out all the time. For example:

https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=92207687

If these guys are important enough to have air marshals on them, they’ve probably got other agencies on them outside of the airports. After all, how do they know when they’re going to the airport?

Its also an excellent way to keep the air marshals alert while on long flights.

When I was a Ground Radio Operator in my USAF days - while manning the station - we had to make hourly reports that ‘nothing happened in the last hour’ - and several fellow airmen were written up (article 15 punishments) for faking the entries and sleeping on the job.

That + observing normal behaviour helps you to spot what would be abnormal on these flights - and helps to train others as well.

This seems to be a self propagating thing. Often an entity needs to continue to find ever more reasons for it’s existence and expansion.

It happens at all levels. In government, business, personal lives.

There is a proper growth period for things. Fulfilling their full purpose. Reacting as situations change. But in human endeavors, it is always taken as a negative when a thing ceases to grow. Even if it has reached it’s useful size and purpose. If external things change to logically require that thing to actually shrink, that is usually seen as an even worse negative. So they can expand or be kept at too large a size and be an ever increasing negative. Ever forward. Into the abyss.

In my early days of IT, one of our head office bosses was a cranky old guy wo I remember once saying “Nobody gets polio any more, but the March of Dimes still exists…” No organization tends to willfully commit suicide. Instead, they find ever more reasons to expand their mission so as to continue running at the size they are or larger. I believe Jerry Pournelle also called this the “Iron Law of Bureaucracy”. Once the enthusiastic do-gooders get the organization off the ground, the bureaucrats ooze in and keep things going not for the cause, but for the continuity of the organization as the end goal. (Oh, and paying their own salaries)

it’s a rare organization that can escape this trap.

never mind

Except, of course, that people do still get polio. It’s very rare in the US, because of our continuing vigilance, but it still occurs elsewhere in the world. Which means that if we lowered that vigilance, it would come back here, too.

But from Wikipedia -

IMHO it’s busy work.

Apparently Congress had not been briefed on this program. As reported by the Washington Post:

Several members of Congress said Monday they were seeking more information on “Quiet Skies.”

“We were not previously aware of the program,” said Drew Pusateri, Democratic communications director on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. “We’ll try to seek some answers from the administration.”

The thing is, this kind of information is probably useful. If you get the proper mind to analyze it.

I just don’t trust the TSA to understand it. Or use it properly. Or not lose it.

Me neither. I didn’t realize sky marshals were under TSA until I looked it up. The sky marshals are law enforcement officers, unlike the airports screeners. But they get just seven weeks of training. In contrast, average police academy training is 21 weeks and CIA clandestine ops employees get 18 months of training.

Whom else would they be under?

Given the name, it’s not an unreasonable assumption that they might be part of the US Marshals, though of course they aren’t.

When I was going to Navy School at Corry Station during the weekends we had to stand fire watches in the various buildings, all former hangers that looked pretty much the same on the inside. Usually this was not too odious, one or maybe two 4-hour watches sometime between Friday evening and Monday morning. One of the things we had to do was call the quarter deck every hour at a specified time – clustered at the top of the hour – to let them know the building was still there. One weekend, though I must have annoyed somebody because on Sunday I had four hours on, four hours off, fours on a second time, four hours off, then a third watch from 8-pm to midnight. The card on the wall next to the watch station said to call at x:55 I took about twenty minutes doing a thorough tour, as I do when I first arrive on watch, waited patiently for the time to hit, then picked up the phone and dialed out.

It is then I discover I can’t recall which building I am in. I can recall the three building numbers I had the watch in but in my current state, which one was the last of the series eludes me. Hoping there’s a delay in answering, I start frantically rummaging through the papers on the desk, looking for one that is addressed specifically to the building. Of course, the other end picks up before the first ring has completed.

“Quarter deck.”

“Wait a minute; I don’t know which building I’m in… Ha! Building 714 is still here!”

He thought that was hilarious.

Facial flushing, fast blinking, excessive face touching and gripping baggage too tight are other behaviors that can get you on the list. Silly, really.