DHS team with guns
5 min read

I’m not much of a government conspiracy guy–haven’t seen any black helicopters outside my house lately–but the events of the past few weeks are enough to make you think. The headline-grabbing story has been about PRISM, a National Security Agency (NSA) program that collects data on mobile phone and internet usage patterns. While initial reports may have overstated the reach of PRISM a bit, it’s still a far-reaching surveillance and data gathering effort that has a lot of people up in arms.

DHS team with guns

An increasingly common sight for GA pilots?

For pilots, an equally alarming story has recently come to light: a rash of pilots have been tracked and detained for no apparent reason. James Fallows of The Atlantic has the most comprehensive list of pilot stories, and it makes for frightening reading. Pilots who have broken no laws, but whose flights match a “suspicious profile,” are met by armed law enforcement agents upon landing. The pilots are told very little about why they have been stopped, and are usually questioned and searched before eventually being released.

The suspicious profile in some cases was nothing more than flying VFR from west to east and stopping at small airports–these aren’t low altitude night flights over the Bahamas. In other words, pilots are being stopped for completely normal flights.

What’s so disturbing about these incidents is that they reveal the vast flight tracking system that is obviously in use. While many pilots may joke about Big Brother watching them on their $100 hamburger flight, these stories make clear that it’s no joke. Some of the suspect pilots were tracked halfway across the country, even though they were VFR and not talking to Air Traffic Control.

Both PRISM and the “pilot profiling” program have one thing in common–a new-found focus on data mining and tracking. In particular, there seems to be little human interaction here, with mostly computer programs looking for bad guys. If your flight matches the profile, you get guys with guns.

This is obviously bad news for pilots, but it’s also terrible news for the FAA–indeed, it couldn’t have come at a worse time for them. In recent months, the FAA has begun to make noises about expanding its Aviation Safety Information Analysis and Sharing (ASIAS) system. This program, which began in 2007, collects flight data recorder information from airlines and shares it with industry groups to improve safety. The FAA’s role is non-punitive, and personally identifiable information is removed. It’s sort of like an automated version of NASA’s well-known ASRS form, except every flight is recorded, not just problem flights.

“Big data” is a horribly overused buzzword, but there is some value in collecting and analyzing vast amounts of data to search for trends. Humans routinely focus on the wrong issues, and we are terrible judges of ourselves. ASIAS takes the human bias out of the equation and measures objectively whether pilots are flying safely or not. It can also alert safety groups to a potential problem before there is a smoking hole in the ground. This has worked fairly well in the airline world so far, with the program getting credit for a number of small but meaningful safety improvements.

Flight data recorder

A “black box” in every Cessna?

Now the FAA wants to roll out an ASIAS-style program beyond the airlines, first to helicopter operators and potentially to private pilots as well. The goal would be to take advantage of a new generation of sensors to monitor what pilots are doing, and use aggregated data to focus on the most important safety issues.

Data logging has been around for years in the form of engine monitors, and these have proven to be valuable tools for owners and mechanics. Recently, data logging has moved into the flight data realm, as newer glass cockpit airplanes have come equipped with basic flight data recorders. These have been used in some accident investigations (like the Cirrus pilot who crashed trying to do an an aileron roll at 200 ft.), but they have never been used for regular flight monitoring.

Creating an ASIAS for general aviation faces two key challenges: deploying the recording technology in large enough numbers, and convincing pilots to share their data. The first issue isn’t as difficult as it may seem initially. Besides the growing number of glass cockpit airplanes, even something as simple as an iPhone has enough sensors to provide some useful information.

On the second issue, privacy, the FAA has a lot of work to do. While the system would most likely be optional and flight information could not be used for enforcement, many pilots will remain skeptical. The headlines about PRISM and pilot detentions won’t help. Would ASIAS data be used to search for security trends in addition to safety trends? What if you flew past a nuclear power plant at low altitude–would some program flag that as suspicious behavior? It’s not implausible, and the FAA needs to get serious about data protection and pilot privacy if they want a program like this to be successful.

In any case, what works for the airlines does not necessarily work for personal aviation–in fact, the opposite is usually true. The world of Part 121 scheduled airlines is inherently different, most significantly because the general public trusts the pilots up front to keep them safe in exchange for money. Private pilots have no such passenger relationship, and have traditionally expected far more privacy. And without widespread data collection, a program like ASIAS can’t work.

Big data may help the GA safety record–but only if pilots give up their data. Right now, that’s a tough sell.

Add your voice: would you allow the FAA to collect your flight data? What if it went through a third party? Leave a comment below.

John Zimmerman
23 replies
  1. Bob
    Bob says:

    These kind of stories make me want to put my pilot license through the shredder, stop renewing my medical, and fly with the transponder turned off. I consider myself pretty tolerant of government surveillance — in a world of terrorism, we all need to give up certain liberties to be safe, but this is really too much.

    • Wayne
      Wayne says:

      And leave your iPad and cell phone at home. Companies routinely use “big data” to track our every move. The Feds are finally catching up to what Google, Apple and every other marketer already uses. The only differnce is that when a company tracks you they only send junk mail and emails, the Feds send people with guns.

      This what we give up for the “protection” from terrorists.

      • Bob
        Bob says:

        Good point about turning off the cellphone. I usually turn mine off when I fly because it interferes with my radio on the ground and kills the battery searching for signal at altitude. I won’t use an ipad in the cockpit anyway so no problem there.

        • David
          David says:

          I have a difficult enough time using iPad in my recliner chair. Don’t know if I could use it in the cockpit with all my attention focused on keeping aloft. As for giving the gummint information about my habits, I already have to tell them more than I feel comfortable with through the IRS, Medicare and local tax authorities. I would prefer they tell me more about their activites, i.e. Benghazi mess.

      • Moses Lonn
        Moses Lonn says:

        True, Ian. But in the mid ’30’s there were an awful lot of folks who were applauding the rise of the government in Germany – including one of my heroes. A fellow named Lindbergh. We never know if the government is benign until after the duct clears.

        • Ian
          Ian says:

          I think it would be easy to say this government isn’t benign. I agree usually the horror of large government overtakes, isn’t prevalent until our children are talking about it in a history class.

          But, I think these past couple years its prevalent that Americans are becoming more aware of the injustices of the government then they ever have before. Perhaps I am wrong, but thats just what I see in my community.

          Red flags like this article describes, and everything else going on… should hopefully not let us fall into a “we didnt know until after” scenario.

          Lets just hope more articles can expose injustices to help bring back normalcy to our aviation community and country as a whole.

  2. Rod Smith
    Rod Smith says:

    They are looking at your last flight in 40RC Dick….you better watch out,we may find out why ya hung it up so soon.

  3. ginny wilken
    ginny wilken says:

    I don’t like it. They can watch my track on SpiderTracks or something if they want, and I like to talk to ATC every time I fly, pretty much. These are supposed to be OUR public servants, helping and not snitching. If anything in the way of data collection involves ATC, I’ll bet they object violently, anyway. But if ADS-B doesn’t drive me into stealth flight, this sort of thing will. Alaska looks better all the time.

  4. Sam Staton
    Sam Staton says:

    NEVER NEVER NEVER! A thousand times no! As I have seen on bumper stickers before, I love my country, but I fear my government – now, more than EVER before.

  5. David
    David says:

    Benjamin Franklin (1706–90)
    QUOTATION: Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.

  6. David Black
    David Black says:

    I absolutly would never give the government anything. Never. I believe there is nothing good can come out of this program. And yes I do love my country but at this point I really do fear our government.

  7. Doyle Frost
    Doyle Frost says:

    What is interesting is the “profiling” by DHS. Yet there are a certain group of people it is absolutely Illegal, Immoral, and Unjust to profile. Check with the nearest airport TSA officer, or police officer. Double standards, from the Feds. Big Brother is monitoring our every move, and this is from someone NOT believing in “conspiracy theories.” That is changing more every day. Our elected representatives and senators are the ones setting the rules, but for whose benefit? It seems less and less they are actually working in OUR interests, and they are OUR employees. It is time they were actually held responsible for their work, or lack of it, and codes of conduct, just as any employee is.

  8. SkyMachines
    SkyMachines says:

    To review:

    Everything they are doing requires your cooperation. If you don’t cooperate, there’s not much they can do except arrest you, and for that, they need probable cause. Where are they getting that? They aren’t.

    Carry your attorney’s cell phone number, the one you have in your wallet. Call it just as soon as you see an officer anywhere near your plane. If necessary, put your attorney on the phone with the officer in charge.

    You must SHOW your pilot certificate, driver’s license and medical to any law enforcement officer. Don’t hand it to them. If they want to make a copy, have the FBO do it for you. Don’t let your documents, or your plane, out of sight, PERIOD.

    LOCK YOUR PLANE at every stop, even when you’re just self-fueling. No one should be able to get into your plane without a key or a crowbar. You aren’t not going to give them a key, so????

    Start the recorder on your cell phone and have it in your breast pocket when talking to ANY law enforcement, anywhere, at any time.

    ASK “Who is the officer in charge here?” And then speak ONLY to that person. Your only question really is, “Am I under arrest?” If another officer wants to talk to you, tell them you’re only talking with Officer X because he’s in charge.

    Be polite. Call them “sir” and “ma’am”. But politely refuse to consent to any search, no matter WHAT they say. (i.e., “If you have nothing to hide, this won’t take a minute.” “It will just go a lot easier for you if you cooperate.” “We’re just trying to do our jobs here. Why do you want to get in our way when we’re just trying to keep America safe?”)

    Take pictures, lots of pictures. If they won’t let you do it, give a camera to someone at the FBO or your passenger and have them do it, from as close as you can get.

    After about 15 min. of talking with them, if you’re not under arrest, you really should consider leaving. Tell them where you’re going and tell them you’d be happy to talk with them there, once you have an attorney present.

    If you don’t have the balls to just up and leave, get out the old yellow pages at the FBO and call a LOCAL attorney at the town where you’ve stopped. Keep calling until you reach someone. Ask them to meet you at the airport ASAP.

  9. SkyMachines
    SkyMachines says:

    It seems to me that, if we all stop cooperating, this thing will blow over. Stop agreeing to a search. Stop agreeing to being detained without arrest. Show your licenses, tell them you’re in a hurry, then get in your plane and GO.

  10. Mr310
    Mr310 says:

    I am a former military officer. I suspect that these interdictions are occurring because there is intel suggesting a threat that will be executed in a certain way. I do not believe this is a “big brother” situation as there is no political content to the activity (as there may be in other PRISM data collection). The fact that this is being done so overtly (armed folks questioning people on tarmacs) suggest the threat is viewed as iminent, otherwise it would be predominantly surveillance of individuals of concern. Just IMHO.

    That said, the government is clearly in the mode of “collect everything”; driven by a combination of (i) “let’s play with our new technology”, (ii) this is the flavor of the moment for getting funding, and (iii) the mind set of “because we can”, all justified by wrapping the flag of National Security around every department’s (including the FAA’s) security apparatus. It is the national equivalent of every small town having a swat team “just in case”. I am reminded of the scene in Dr. Strangelove where General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott), when told of the Russian Doomsday Bomb, whistfully says “I wish we had one of those”. It is a horrific waste of money and is creating a system that can be, if it has not been already, diverted to nefarious use by corrupt politicians.

    We do need to monitor the activities of certain bad guys (including some who are inside the US), this is nothing new. But there is no need to reach into everyone’s phone or computer on a random basis and data mine. This program would benefit from a lot of, but not necessarily absolute, sunlight.

    • Moses Lonn
      Moses Lonn says:

      Sane comments. Thank you. I am happy to cooperate but I still want to see a warrant. If I’m not under arrest and if I don’t see FAA credentials, then I am free to go, correct?

  11. Larry Butler
    Larry Butler says:

    I wouldn’t willingly give the FAA the time or day, much less “my data”. Unfortunately, they’ll find a way to get it one way or another.

  12. E
    E says:

    One more screw in the coffin of freedom and liberty. If the government believes that they should decide what is good for me and that they know better (based on what?) what is good for us, then tell me what kind of regime this is. Europe has already seen it and to get rid of it, it took the sacrifice of too many great American heroes. The path that the western world is taking is slippery and very dangerous.

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