Deployment of Surveillance Blimp over Md. Raises Privacy Concerns

Thursday, 23 Jan 2014 08:32 AM

By Elliot Jager

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Plans by the U.S. Army to test a stationary surveillance blimp near the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland are raising privacy concerns.

According to The Washington Post, the tethered blimp, or aerostat, is designed to detect low-flying cruise missiles or enemy aircraft before they reach the nation's capital 45 miles away

Lighter than air and equipped with a powerful radar system, it is similar to other reconnaissance platforms that have been deployed by U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, and by Israel to monitor the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, the Post reported.

The aerostat is set to be deployed for up to 30 days at a time, with its powerful radar net capable of extending from Raleigh, N.C. to Boston, and over to Lake Erie.

The Army says it has "no current plans" to load the craft with cameras and sensors able to track the movements of people, or to share its data with federal agencies or local police.

Nevertheless, privacy advocates are concerned.

"That's the kind of massive persistent surveillance we've always been concerned about with drones," the American Civil Liberties Union's Jay Stanley told the Post. "It's part of this trend we've seen since 9/11, which is the turning inward of all of these surveillance technologies."

In a written statement to the Post, the Army said, "The primary mission . . . is to track airborne objects. Its secondary mission is to track surface moving objects such as vehicles or boats. The capability to track surface objects does not extend to individual people."

But Jennifer Lynch of the Electronic Frontier Foundation cautioned, "Once a surveillance technology is put up, it's very tempting for law enforcement or the military to use it for reasons they did not originally disclose."

The aerostat model being tested — and a second one in storage in Utah — cost the government about $2.7 billion to develop.

While it is not easy to shoot one down from the ground, the crafts are subject to weather conditions. When an aerostat loaded with surveillance equipment ripped free of its cable in Afghanistan it had to be shot down by the Air Force at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars, Defense News reported.

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