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How Being on the Wrong Flight Turns You Into a Target for Spy Agencies

Kingfisher NCTC Flight Spying Program

Spy agencies around the world can collect a massive amount of data from unknowing citizens in their quest to identify terror suspects, and the many Snowden leaks have shown how sophisticated these spy programs truly are. A new report reveals that the U.S. government has at its disposal a powerful tool that might flag anyone, including American citizens, as suspects, simply if they’re unlucky enough to be on the wrong flight.

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According to Phase Zero, a program called Kingfisher, which was officially referred to in a congressional hearing on Wednesday, is used to spy on plane passengers that might appear to have any connection with a known suspect boarding the same flight.

In other words, if you’re on the wrong flight, you might end up being checked on by secret services together with every other passenger aboard that flight. The move is meant to prevent terrorists who travel together making it look like they’re strangers in order to avoid suspicion. That was one ruse used by two of the perpetrators of the World Trade Center attack who arrived more than 20 years ago on the same flight at Kennedy airport, but were seated in separate sections of the plane.

The Kingfisher program went live in mid-June 2013 at the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). Since then, every day, the system combs through a treasure trove of data, looking to find correlations between suspected individuals who might board flights to the U.S. with other passengers, after identifying targets on that aircraft. The system can continuously monitor foreigners even after they have entered the country.

The service primarily targeted the 11 million annual visa applicants by “comparing applicant data to… classified data” but expanded to include every passenger on a flight with a RED target, including American citizens. The sophisticated automated system can return RED/GREEN tip-offs within minutes, making it a useful near real-time tool that can detect whether suspected terrorists are looking to enter the U.S. by air.

Every single RED flag is then hand-checked and further monitored, if it is deemed necessary. Each week, some 20 to 30 RED flags are sent to law enforcement for further scrutiny.

On any flight with a RED hit, all the passengers are then checked “against name databases, against fingerprints, iris scans, even facial photos” and other data intelligence agencies have collected. That means practically anyone on the same flight with a suspect might end up being looked at by an agency. Furthermore, it appears that the fact you may have been on a flight with a RED target will also go in your record.

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he closely follows the events in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises. Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.