Pentagon Is Testing High Altitude Surveillance Balloons to 'Watch Everything at Once': 'It's Disturbing'

The U.S. military is testing high altitude, solar-powered balloons allowing the Pentagon to conduct continuous surveillance of a wide swath of the Midwest, according to a new report.

The Guardian reported that the program is detailed in documents filed with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), showing that the military is sending the balloons flying across six states at altitudes of up to 65,000 feet.

The Pentagon has thus far flown as many as 25 of the balloons, launching them from a site in South Dakota and flying them some 250 miles over Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin and Missouri. The balloons then land in central Illinois.

The FCC filing was made by an aerospace and defense company Sierra Nevada Corporation. The documents explain that the craft are designed to "provide a persistent surveillance system to locate and deter narcotic trafficking and homeland security threats."

It appears the first set of flights were approved by the FCC last year, while the most recent documentation shows approval for operations running from mid-July until September. Outfitted with sophisticated radars, the balloons are able to track multiple vehicles at day and night in all weathers.

The balloons—which are being flown by United States Southern Command—also carry small vehicles containing sensors and communications equipment. The loadout includes a synthetic aperture radar designed to be able to detect every single moving car or boat active in a 25-mile field beneath the balloon.

The craft operate as a network, fitted with advanced mesh networking technologies meaning they can communicate with one another. The balloons can pass information—including video—to each other and to receivers on the ground.

The Guardian suggested the balloons may be carrying Sierra Nevada's advanced Gorgon Stare video capture system, which is already in use in U.S. military drones. The Pentagon has also used Gorgon Stare on tethered surveillance blimps in Afghanistan. It consists of nine cameras recording panoramic images, enabling operators to capture activity across an entire city at once.

The tests have already raised concerns among civil rights activists, who suggest surveillance operations will necessarily collect large amounts of data on citizens going about their day-to-day lives.

Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union, told The Guardian his organization does "not think that American cities should be subject to wide area surveillance in which every vehicle could be tracked wherever they go."

"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."

Sierra Nevada already supplies Southcom with surveillance equipment for use in light aircraft, used to monitor drug trafficking routes and the criminal elements that operate them. But high altitude, solar powered balloons can loiter over an area for much longer than a plane and offer a far wider field of surveillance.

It is not yet clear whether Southcom's tests are related to any ongoing anti-drugs or anti-terrorism operation, nor how any collected data is being stored or shared. Stanley said the ACLU wanted to know "what they are they doing with that data, how they are they storing it, and whether they are contemplating deploying this in the U.S."

"Because if they decide that it's usable domestically, there's going to be enormous pressure to deploy it," he warned.

Pentagon, surveillance, Southcom, balloons, spy
This file photo shows an aerial view of St. Louis, Missouri on August 17, 2006. Missouri is one of the states over which Southcom is flying its surveillance balloons. Dan Donovan/MLB Photos/Getty