H.L. Mencken observed that “balloonists have an unsurpassed view of the scenery, but there is always the possibility that it may collide with them.” On Saturday came the collision. With the undisguised joy of children popping a balloon with a needle, Americans celebrated when a U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor fired a single missile to send China’s surveillance balloon, aka “the red zeppelin,” into the Atlantic off the coast of South Carolina.
Good enough. But is our own government also using surveillance balloons to spy on American citizens?
In 2019, a Pentagon contractor sought permission from the Federal Communications Commission to conduct wide-area surveillance tests over six Midwestern states – South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Missouri, and Illinois. The aerospace-defense corporation Sierra Nevada said in this filing that balloons would be tested to “provide a persistent surveillance system to locate and deter narcotic trafficking and homeland security threats.”
The Guardian broke the story that these spy balloons, capable of loitering over cities for weeks or months, probably carried military-grade surveillance equipment, perhaps even Gorgon Stare – a pack of nine cameras capable of taking panoramic images of city-sized or larger areas to offer 24-hour coverage. Such visuals, downloaded and recorded, would give federal agents the ability to rewind and follow the movements of a single person or vehicle.
“We do not think American cities should be subject to wide-area surveillance in which every vehicle could be tracked wherever they go,” Jan Stanley of the American Civil Liberties Union told The Guardian. “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.”
The Baltimore police ran a similar program using a spy plane that captured panoramas of that city. A federal appeals court declared the program unconstitutional in June 2021. By then, however, almost 1 million images had already been entered as evidence in criminal cases.
It would be good to know the outcome of the Pentagon’s balloon experiment. Was any actionable intelligence used from this program? Did this program continue domestically in some form or fashion, or was it (forgive us) merely a trial balloon that went nowhere?