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A Military Contractor Is Flying Spy Balloons High Over the Midwest

The contractor, Sierra Nevada Corporation, developed the ‘Gorgon Stare,’ the most powerful aerial surveillance platform ever created.

by Edward Ongweso Jr
Aug 2 2019, 6:25pm

raksybH (the aerial image / Composition Jason Koebler via Getty Images

The United States military is now testing high-altitude surveillance balloons across the Midwest, according to documents a military contractor filed with the Federal Communications Commission. The news was first reported by The Guardian.

The filing states the intent of military contractor Sierra Nevada Corporation is to "provide a persistent surveillance system to locate and deter narcotics trafficking and homeland security threats.” The Guardian reported these have been launched and tested across South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Missouri, and Illinois.

The 25 balloons are solar-powered and unmanned. To ensure the largest possible surveillance range, the balloons will not fly at altitudes up to 65,000 ft (for reference, commercial airplanes typically fly between 31,000 and 38,000 ft.) It’s worth noting that the Sierra Nevada Corporation also created a technology called the “Gorgon Stare,” a state-of-the-art aerial surveillance system. In Greek mythology, Gorgons were cryptids that would turn you to stone if you met their glance. Today, it’s the name for a system that is at the cutting edge of Wide Area Motion Imagery (WAMI). WAMI allows for an area to be recorded at once while watching and zooming in on multiple targets. The Gorgon Stare, then, can (and is intended to) watch an entire city and while recording that city, track the movements of multiple vehicles, persons, or locations of interest. It has been deployed overseas in the war on terror.

When Arthur Holland Michel, founder of the Bard Center for the Study of the Drone, discovered this technology in 2013, he said “nothing kept me up at night the way Gorgon Stare did.” In his book, Eyes in the Sky: The Secret Rise of Gorgon Stare and How it Will Watch Us All, Holland notes that Gorgon Stare provides a “God’s-eye view” of kilometers-wide areas and that the technology opens up a “whole other dimension of surveillance.”

Military technology has a long history of finding its way back home. Part of that comes from how much money is involved. Since 2008, the Sierra Nevada Corporation has been awarded an excess of $12 billion in government contracts according to spending records. Military technology is so damn expensive, so even if it has outlived its usefulness overseas, it is often repurposed and brought home.

There are federal programs which provide state and local law enforcement agencies with military arsenals at steep discounts. But militarized police forces don’t actually make us safer—they just target communities of color and deepen the hostility between the public and law enforcement.

It has been almost 18 years since 9/11 and yet, even though deaths from terrorism by right-wing white American men long ago outstripped deaths by Muslim extremists, the United States is still pushing to bring home technology from its failed War on Terror.