Up to 25 unmanned high-altitude, solar-powered balloons will be launched over 250 miles of Midwestern states as part of a US military wide-area surveillance tests, according to documents filed with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The experimental balloon drones will start their journey in rural South Dakota, drift through parts of Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Missouri, then conclude their trek in central Illinois.
Able to fly up to 65,000 feet, the balloons fly in the stratosphere and use high-tech radars to track many individual vehicles at any time of day, through any kind of weather. They are intended to “provide a persistent surveillance system to locate and deter narcotic trafficking and homeland security threats,” according to the Sierra Nevada Corporation, an aerospace and defense company.
“What this new technology proposes is to watch everything at once,” explains Arthur Holland Michel, the co-director of the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College in New York. “Sometimes it’s referred to as ‘combat TiVo’ because when an event happens somewhere in the surveilled area, you can potentially rewind the tape to see exactly what occurred, and rewind even further to see who was involved and where they came from.”
The Guardian writes that the project has been commissioned by the US Southern Command (Southcom), a government entity responsible for disaster response, intelligence operations, and security cooperation in the Caribbean and Central and South America. It plays key roles in identifying and intercepting drug shipments headed for the United States
A team of balloons that records individual citizens without their consent raises numerous concerns surrounding privacy and civil liberties.
“We do not think that American cities should be subject to wide-area surveillance in which every vehicle could be tracked wherever they go,” said Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union. “Even in tests, they’re still collecting a lot of data on Americans: who’s driving to the union house, the church, the mosque, the Alzheimer’s clinic. We should not go down the road of allowing this to be used in the United States and it’s disturbing to hear that these tests are being carried out, by the military no less.”