If you’ve been paying attention to news coverage for the past week, you’ve learned that the rest of the nation mostly sees the Midwest as a nebulous, inscrutable cornfield that will somehow decide the 2020 election. So maybe it’s no surprise that a couple dozen high-flying spy balloons are snooping on us as we speak.
Yup; documents obtained by the Guardian say that the Sierra Nevada Corporation – an aerospace and defense company – is launching up to 25 “unmanned solar-powered balloons” out of South Dakota from mid-July until September.
The balloons, equipped with high-powered radar designed to track many cars at once (day or night, rain or shine), are supposed to drift up to 65,000 feet over the Midwest. That includes parts of Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Missouri, and central Illinois.
But their ultimate target reportedly isn’t us. The purpose of this exercise, according to documents filed with the Federal Communications Commission, is to develop “a persistent surveillance system” to “locate and deter narcotic trafficking and homeland security threats.” The whole thing is a test commissioned by the U.S. Southern Command (Southcom), which, among other things, is supposed to keep drug shipments from reaching the United States.
This is the first we’re hearing about it, but according to the Guardian it's not the first time it’s happened. Similar flights were approved last year. And not everybody’s on board.
“We do not think that American cities should be subject to wide-area surveillance in which every vehicle could be tracked wherever they go,” American Civil Liberties Union policy analyst Jay Stanley told the Guardian. Even if this Midwest flight is just a test, he said, it could still be collecting a lot of data on everyone below. Like “who’s driving to the union house” or “the mosque” or “the Alzheimer’s clinic.”
“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,” he said.
Social media’s not exactly enthused, either. Commenters on Twitter called the revelation “creepy, and very disturbing,” “dystopian,” and “inconsistent with life in a free society.”
"Of course they are," one Twitter user posted on Monday. "I feel so safe, now!"
The Guardian also says it’s unclear from the documents whether this Midwestern test data would be deleted, or if it would be passed along to “other federal or local agencies.”