The United States military is performing widespread surveillance experiments over half a dozen Midwest states with the use of high-altitude balloons, according to documents filed with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
Around 25 balloons powered by the sun are being deployed from rural South Dakota and they will float 250 miles (402 km) over a region spanning sections of Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Missouri, before drawing to a close in central Illinois.
Moving through the stratosphere with altitudes up to 65,000 ft (19,000 meters), the unmanned balloons are designed to “provide a persistent surveillance system to locate and deter narcotic trafficking and homeland security threats,” according to documents filed on the behalf of the Sierra Nevada Corporation. The balloons contain high-end radar systems made to track multiple vehicles at anytime of day or night, and in any type of weather conditions.
Co-director of the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College in New York, Arthur Holland Michel, says, “What this new technology proposes is to watch everything at once. 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 testing has been commissioned by the United States Southern Command (Southcom), which is in charge of intelligence operation, security operations, and disaster response in the Caribbean, Central America, and South America. Southcom is a collaboration of several forces, including the army, navy, and air force. One of its primary objectives is to identify and intercept shipments of illegal drugs coming into the U.S.
Objection to the tests
“We do not think that American cities should be subject to wide area surveillance in which every vehicle could be tracked wherever they go,” says 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,” said Stanley. “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.”