The military filed a Special Temporary Authorization for the balloons with the FCC this week, according to the Guardian. The purpose of the balloons according to that filing is to “conduct high altitude MESH networking tests over South Dakota to provide a persistent surveillance system to locate and deter narcotic trafficking and homeland security threats.”
The filing was made “Sierra Nevada Corporation” which is an aerospace and defense company. The balloons are being launched from South Dakota, according to the Guardian.
The balloons are capable of tracking multiple individuals or vehicles during the day or night. They’re also already recording, so should an event happen in an area being surveilled by the balloons, they’ll be able to essentially rewind the tape and see what occurred as well as where any potential suspects might have traveled.
The 25 balloons are solar-powered and unmanned. To ensure the largest possible surveillance range, the balloons will not fly at altitudes up to 65,000 ft (for reference, commercial airplanes typically fly between 31,000 and 38,000 ft.) It’s worth noting that the Sierra Nevada Corporation also created a technology called the “Gordon Stare,” a state-of-the-art aerial surveillance system. In Greek mythology, Gorgons were cryptids that would turn you to stone if you met their glance. Today, it’s the name for a system that is at the cutting edge of Wide Area Motion Imagery (WAMI). WAMI allows for an area to be recorded at once while watching and zooming in on multiple targets. The Gorgon Stare, then, can (and is intended to) watch an entire city and while recording that city, track the movements of multiple vehicles, persons, or locations of interest. It has been deployed overseas in the war on terror.
When Arthur Holland Michel, founder of the Bard Center for the Study of the Drone, discovered this technology in 2013, he said “nothing kept me up at night the way Gorgon Stare did.” In his book, Eyes in the Sky: The Secret Rise of Gorgon Stare and How it Will Watch Us All, Holland notes that Gorgon Stare provides a “God’s-eye view” of kilometers-wide areas and that the technology opens up a “whole other dimension of surveillance.”
Military technology has a long history of finding its way back home. Part of that comes from how much money is involved. Since 2008, the Sierra Nevada Corporation has been awarded an excess of $12 billion in government contracts according to spending records. Military technology is so damn expensive, so even if it has outlived its usefulness overseas, it is often repurposed and brought home.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa is echoing the concerns of its national counterpart, saying mass surveillance programs like the one described by the Guardian are “problematic” for Iowans.
“We think this is really problematic and would hope that all Iowans would be concerned about the government surveilling every single one of us with technology used for, and appropriately designed for, locating (improvised explosive devices) on battlefields,” said Daniel Zeno, policy director at the ACLU of Iowa.
The devices could simultaneously track every vehicle in an area the size of the Des Moines metro, he said.
It has been almost 18 years since 9/11 and yet, even though deaths from terrorism by right-wing white American men long ago outstripped deaths by Muslim extremists, the United States is still pushing to bring home technology from its failed War on Terror.