21:02 GMT30 October 2020
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    The US Army is testing a surveillance system consisting of two enormous blimps floating above the Northeast. The manufacturer says they will help stop deadly threats, but privacy advocates are worried their unparalleled spying capabilities will be used to keep tabs on ordinary Americans.

    If you happened to be driving on Interstate 95 near Baltimore Wednesday, you may have glimpsed the latest US military surveillance technology. It’d have been pretty hard to miss: an ominous, grey blimp that’s 80 yards long, 600,000 cubic feet in volume, floating 10,000 feet above the ground. 

    Massive Airships

    The huge airship is part of a system called JLENS, which stands for Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System. If that’s a bit of a mouthful, just think of the system as a pair of enormous airships, tethered to the ground, that uses powerful radar to detect incoming threats to US airspace, like cruise missiles. 

    JLENS will operate as a pair of blimps that will hover in the sky — one about 45 miles northeast of Washington, the other about 20 miles from Baltimore. Built by defense giant Raytheon, the blimps will — once they are formally deployed next year — work in tandem to detect threats. 

    One will constantly scan with high-resolution 360-degree radar for 340 miles in any direction; the other focuses on specific threats and provides targeting information. The JLENS blimps (technically called aerostats, because they’re moored to the ground) can spot danger from the air from North Carolina all the way to Boston — an area the size of Texas.

    Missiles, Boats or People?

    The Army insists JLENS will be looking out for missiles or possibly rogue boats. But the system is more than capable of detecting a lot more than that. It’s basically a 360-degree security panopticon in the sky. 

    Promotional material from Raytheon touts the system’s ability to “simultaneously detect and track double-digit swarming boats, hundreds of cars and trucks, non-swarming boats and manned and unmanned aircraft.” 

    Although the Army says they have no plans to do so, the JLENS system could very easily be equipped with high-resolution video cameras. This would enable them to visualize and record objects and terrain for miles in every direction. This is already being done with another blimp that hovers above Kabul, called the Persistent Ground Surveillance System. 

    That capability has privacy advocates very worried. 

    Powerful Radar

    “A lot of people may hear radar and they picture a fuzzy green screen with little blips,” Jay Stanley, a privacy expert with the ACLU, told The Intercept. “But today’s radar is significantly more sophisticated than that and is in some ways akin to a camera.” 

    Indeed, in a test last year, Raytheon outfitted a blimp with a sophisticated visualization system that allowed operators to “watch a live feed of trucks, trains and cars from dozens of miles away.”

    But Major Beth Smith, the spokesperson for the JLENS program, is adamant the system is not designed to keep tabs on ordinary Americans. 

    “JLENS has no cameras, it has no video, nor is it tracking any people. It does not possess the capability to see people,” she said. 

    But Jay Stanley is not convinced. “I’m sure that the people who are giving us these assurances mean everything they say, but the nature of government programs and government agencies is that things tend to expand and privacy protections tend to shrink.”

    Reduced Scope, Bloated Budget

    As originally planned in 2005, a network of 32 JLENS blimps was supposed to be deployed across the country, costing about $180 million each. But cost overruns, coupled with the loss of a blimp to an accident, triggered the Pentagon to terminate the development program in 2012. It was decided testing would continue for the prototypes that were already in service, but no new blimps would be built. 

    That brings the total cost for JLENS to $1.4 billion per blimp. That’s a lot of cash — to either keep people in the Northeast safe, or to spy on their everyday activities like never before. 

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