Privacy: US military tests stratospheric balloon monitoring

Some use stratospheric balloons to bring the Internet to the remotest parts of the world, the others to monitor vehicles: the US military is testing balloons equipped with surveillance technology in several US Midwestern states.

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The balloons float at about 20 kilometers altitude. They are equipped with sensors and a communication system. The sensor system includes a powerful radar that can simultaneously monitor many vehicles, day and night as well as any weather. The balloons are intended to be used as a permanent surveillance system against drug traffickers and against threats to US national security, it says in a documentfiled by the US aerospace company Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

Up to 25 of these balloons were launched in the US state of South Dakota. They were then drifted about 400 kilometers far over Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin and Missouri to Illinois, where they had landed. The FCC approved the tests for the period from mid-July to September, writes The Guardian, The British newspaper was the first to report. Accordingly, there have been similar test flights in the past year.

The United States Southern Command hunts drug couriers

Patients of the tests is U.S. Pat. Southern Command (Southcom) of the US military, which controls the military operations of all branches of service in South and Central America and the Caribbean. These include security and spy missions as well as disaster missions. One of the main tasks of the Southcom: to intercept drug supplies to the United States.

So far, the Southcom uses aircraft to detect drug suppliers. However, they require a crew and have a limited service life. The balloons, however, are unmanned and can be in the air for a long time. They navigate – similar to the balloons of Loon – by ascending and descending. In the various layers of air, the winds blow in different directions.

US civil rights activists are outraged by the tests and see it as a threat to privacy. "We do not believe that American cities should be monitored extensively, with any vehicle being tracked anywhere it goes", criticized Jay Stanley of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). "Even in the tests, they collect a lot of data about Americans: who drives to the trade union house, to the church, to the mosque, to the Alzheimer's clinic." Such tests should not be allowed, he claims.