back to article It's a bird! It's a plane! No, it's two-dozen government surveillance balloons over America

Uncle Sam is testing a system that uses high-altitude balloons to conduct surveillance over American soil. Government contractor Sierra Nevada Corporation – the aerospace company, not the brewery – has released balloons that will drift over a large area in the United States' Midwest, and form a network capable of monitoring …

  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "conduct high altitude MESH networking tests over South Dakota to provide a persistent surveillance system to locate and deter narcotic trafficking and homeland security threats."

    I believe them.:rolleyes: Decriminalizing drugs would be a better option, the war on drugs will never be won.

    Decriminalization will also help with the overdose problem by making clean drugs available. People will be able to get help without the fear of being arrested or charged.

    1. A.P. Veening Silver badge

      Decriminalization will also allow taxing of those drugs, a win all around on the legal side. However, it will never happen as there are too many corrupt politicians profiting from illegal drugs.

      1. Malcolm Weir Silver badge

        @A.P.Veening ... while I don't disagree with the conclusion, the "profit" for politicians is not from the drugs but from the "illegal", and whether or not it is actually "corrupt" is debatable.

        Political benefit from "the war on drugs" (etc) comes from (a) the carceral industry directly supporting election campaigns and (b) the ability to present a "tough on crime" stance, which appeals to significant chunks of the electorate and doesn't revolt other chunks. Morally corrupt, perhaps, but that's likely a necessary attribute for being a politician...

        [ c.f. Priti Patels' "want criminals to feel terror" spew to the Daily Fail yesterday, which totally glosses over the issue that if the fuzz inspire terror in crims, how are non-crims and not-yet-convicted-proto-crims likely to interact with the plod? ]

    2. macjules Silver badge

      So you "decriminalise" drugs. Do you think that Señor Billionaire Drug Trafficker is now going to

      1) Go legit and run a huge drugs export business supplying high quality cocaine?

      2) Carry on doing what he does at the moment, i.e. employing corrupt officials to let his product into the USA, Antwerp or Hamburg by the container load?

      1. JasonLaw

        Economics, mate.

        The experience so far is that legally produced drugs have a much lower cost, making illegal trafficking unprofitable.

        1. macjules Silver badge

          Re: Economics, mate.

          No, there is no experience of legally produced narcotics in the quantities that illegal drugs are being produced at.

          1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

            Re: Economics, mate.

            >No, there is no experience of legally produced narcotics

            not at all a narcotics maker

          2. Stork Silver badge

            Re: Economics, mate.

            If you go back about 90 years and consider the then in the US illegal drug C2H5OH, I think you get the idea.

            Interesting enough, reading a biography of FDR I learned that possession was legal then, manufacture, import and trading not. You could legally have a tipple from you own wine cellar...

            1. Mike Richards

              Re: Economics, mate.

              There were lots of exemptions - communion wine for instance; one vineyard in California offered fourteen types including port and sherry. In fact, land under vines in California increased from 100,000 acres to 700,000 during Prohibition. As Bill Bryson put it in ‘One Summer’ (recommended BTW), ‘that wasn’t because people were suddenly eating a lot of raisins.’

              Doctors could also prescribe spirits; so much so that in 1927 the Prohibition Commissioner had to authorise the release of three million gallons of whiskey for ‘medicine’. When questioned why so much alcohol was needed, the US Treasury blamed ‘evaporation’.

              It was illegal to produce your own wine, but it *was* perfectly legal to buy grape concentrate which came labelled with ‘Caution: Will ferment and turn into wine within 60 days’

          3. simonlb

            Re: Economics, mate.

            Where do you think hospitals and healthcare companies get their medical-grade drugs from? Amazon? eBay!?

            Pharmaceutical companies produce these at industrial scale for the existing medical global market.

      2. a_yank_lurker Silver badge

        The parallel is with alcohol.There will always be drug abuse including alcohol whether drugs are legal or illegal. By making them legal, the manufacturers can be better supervised much like alcoholic beverage producers are today. Taxes can be added to the product, again much like alcohol. The overall quality of the product will improve, e.g. not be adulterated as the manufacturers now have a brand to protect. Sales will take place in regular businesses with much less risk to both the buyer and seller. The distribution will be through retail distribution channels again like alcohol. But the most important issue is abuse is not a criminal action for possession only a medical/psychological issue. DUI and other end result behavior (drunk and disorderly, etc) would still apply like they do with alcohol.

        While bootlegging still occurs over here, most people in wet counties don't bother with the bootleggers as it is far easier to go to the local liquor store for the hard stuff. And in many areas beer and wine are sold in the grocery stores, again far easier to run down to the grocery store. Note there are no dry states on dry counties over here.

        1. TonyJ Silver badge

          "...Sales will take place in regular businesses with much less risk to both the buyer and seller. ..."

          I heard an interview with a serving drugs officer on the radio shortly after Ulbricht was jailed.

          The officer, as I recall, didn't want to be named because of some of the things he was saying:

          Transactions were safer because people weren't buying from random dealers in back alleys in the middle of the night, and weren't being ripped off/attempting to rip the dealer off;

          The quality of narcotis actually improved notably because now people had real market choice and if yours weren't up to muster, there were plenty of other sellers. Purer product tends to lead to lower harm as it's the crap they're cut with that causes most immediate problems;

          The prices went down which meant that pressure on buyers to maintain a level of purchase went down with it;

          The dealers ran loyalty schemes and try-before-you buy schemes with usually accurate (or as accurate as could be expected) descriptions which lead to less harm due to taking something that was completely unknown.

          He also admitted what everyone with half a brain already knows - the war on drugs is lost. It was lost before it ever really began!

      3. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        We've actually been down this road before in the US, so we have a pretty good idea what will happen. Back in the 1930s legalization of alcohol dealt a body blow to organized crime financing that the traffickers survived by moving into the illegal drug trade. As for the future, I think we'll see a move into areas dominated by global economic elites like the arms trade and investment banking.

        1. Benson's Cycle

          "the future"?

          As J I M Stewart and others pointed out long ago, the investment banking and the arms trade are run by the "respectable" descendants of slave traders, drug dealers and pirates.

          One of the big problems for the Quakers, that eminently respectable sect, is that much of its wealth was founded on drug dealing - tobacco - and indirect slavery - chocolate.

      4. Stork Silver badge

        In reality many of those types have hedged their business. Slavery, prostitution, arms, extortion, rare animals, I am sure you can continue the list.

      5. Cynic_999 Silver badge

        About the same percentage as there is illegal booze in circulation since alcohol prohibition was lifted.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      "conduct high altitude MESH networking tests over South Dakota to provide a persistent surveillance system to locate and deter narcotic trafficking and homeland security threats."

      But... but... surely this is completely unnecessary... there's going to be a wall isn't there?

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Not on the Canadian border …. unless Canada builds one.

        1. Steve Davies 3 Silver badge

          re: That Wall

          There will be one to the North and those ornery Canucks will pay for it All

          {projected tweet from Potus just before the first primary of the 2020 election}

    4. Tigra 07 Silver badge

      RE: AC

      "Decriminalization will also help with the overdose problem by making clean drugs available"

      You can overdose on drugs regardless of purity. You can overdose on water if you drink too much.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: RE: AC

        The overdose problem with street narcotics is because of the variable amount of the active drug in the sample. Taking heroin as as example, according to National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre in Sydney the average purity of the samples they collected from the street was 66%, but ranged from 20% to 90%.

        If someone is used to using 20% product, then gets a dose of 80%, then they ingest 4 times as much drug as normal using the same dosage. That is more than enough to push them over the edge into overdose.

        Let us put this in terms that the rest of us are more likely to encounter and understand:

        A tourist who is used to drinking a 12-pack of American "Light" beer in a single sitting drinks a single decent stout and gets smashed, and when they drink 12 they die of alcohol poisoning.

        1. Charles 9 Silver badge

          Re: RE: AC

          "The overdose problem with street narcotics is because of the variable amount of the active drug in the sample."

          AND the fact unscrupulous dealers have been swapping out the drugs for more potent stuff that's still easier to get. Fentanyl overdoses have been increasingly common. There's also the truck of swapping for stuff not intended for humans such as swapping out several mg of heroin for just a single speck of carfentanil (WARNING: that stuff is only meant for use with large animals such as bears).

          PS. Even if drug markets went legit, there would still be a black market for people who want the stuff cheaper, without pesky taxes and so on (think the stolen cigarettes being sold back in Goodfellas).

      2. Cynic_999 Silver badge

        Re: RE: AC


        You can overdose on drugs regardless of purity.


        Of course - but the point is that if the strength is unknown and variable, you have no idea what is and is not a safe dose.

  2. redpawn Silver badge

    Replacement for

    Russian satellites in the guise of national security. Everyone wins with this.

  3. Claverhouse Silver badge

    Hopefully non-stop surveillance and continuous monitoring of every single American's every activity and thought will ensure a fuller and better freedom for all. Every American's birthright.

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    So I guess these are trial balloons? *badum* TISH

    A friend of mine said Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser spacecraft got on the commercial space short-list to prop the company up and make sure it's still around to do it's black work.


  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    99 Fed balloons go by

    I'm going nuclear over this!

    1. Benson's Cycle

      Re: 99 Fed balloons go by

      It's OK until it's in German, then be very afraid.

      neunundneunzig Luftballons

      1. A.P. Veening Silver badge

        Re: 99 Fed balloons go by

        Now with link: Nena ‎- 99 Luftballons

  6. Pascal Monett Silver badge

    "Privacy advocates will be less than-thrilled"

    Pretty soon privacy advocates will have to change country. The USA is becoming a fascist state and that is that.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: "Privacy advocates will be less than-thrilled"

      If you still think it's "is becoming" you have not been following the news much.

      It's pretty much there as far as I can tell.

  7. A.P. Veening Silver badge

    @Pascal Monett: The USA is becoming a fascist state and that is that.

    It already is, it is becoming a fascist dictatorship.

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      >the USA is becoming a fascist state and that is that.

      Ridiculous, have you seen the punctuality record of American railways?

      1. Benson's Cycle

        American railways

        Molto buono - but in fact Mussolini did not make the trains run to time, his promises were about as reliable as those of any other politician.

        Milan station is nice, though.

        1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

          Re: American railways

          A misunderstanding, he wanted to reduce the dependence on foreign coal and use native wild growing shrubs as fuel

          He actually made the trains run on thyme.

          ...... sorry .....

  8. token

    Everyone sing along

    America! America! Those balloons will need to seee~, for freedom and for safety, the feds are watching meee~

    1. GrapeBunch Silver badge

      Very good. Though I wonder whether bloons would parse better than balloons. Your choice is better, lest anybody imagine that feds might reign down money (dubloons) on Great Plains or Bad Lands. Psst: "It snot realm one y."

  9. a_yank_lurker Silver badge

    Technical Issue

    Since balloons are not steerable it strikes me as this is not a particularly effective method of deploying sensors. If the wind is blowing in the wrong direction they could either end up in say Mexico or not monitoring the area intended. Effective balloon spotting in WWI used tethered balloons so they would not drift away. A blimp or dirigible would be more effective as they are steerable and could be kept on station better.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Technical Issue

      Wind tends to blow different directions at different altitudes. It's not possible to fly a balloon as precisely as a helicopter or airplane, but there can be a surprising level of control, especially if the balloon is covering a wide area.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Technical Issue

        And balloons are cheap so you can have lots of them, as opposed to the satellites high above that can already see everything but cost billions so are too few to be squandered looking at mid level stuff. They also pass over head rather quickly so give a poor coverage duty cycle.

      2. Charles 9 Silver badge

        Re: Technical Issue

        Plus, at the stratospheric heights described (60,000+'), the dominant winds are the jet streams, which are actually quite stable and predictable.

        1. Cynic_999 Silver badge

          Re: Technical Issue


          the dominant winds are the jet streams, which are actually quite stable and predictable


          But also pretty strong, which means that the balloons will not remain over the area of interest for long. Unless they have enough to circle the Globe, of course ...

      3. Benson's Cycle

        Re: Technical Issue

        IIRC the Loon experiment over Puerto Rico was rather successful.

  10. harmjschoonhoven

    Re: Sierra Nevada Corporation

    In 2011 the Sierra Nevada Corporation developed Gordon Stare, a 100 megapixel Airborne Wide-Area Persistent Surveillance System extensively used both in drones over Aghanistan and in drones, balloons and planes over the USA. It has now been superseded by a.o. ARGUS-IS, a 1.8 Gigapixel video system composed from 368 cell phone cameras, 5 megapixels each.

    Arthur Holland Michel, Eyes in the Sky

    1. A random security guy

      Re: Sierra Nevada Corporation

      Why go after terrorists in Afghanistan if you can go after the ones in the US. Unfortunately, they are not. They are going after all of us.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Sierra Nevada Corporation

        Yes, but in Afghanistan it's hard to pick the terrorists out from the rest of the population - in the US you just need to look for the little red hats.

  11. JulieM Silver badge

    First online, now this

    Back in the days, privacy could be taken for granted. If you wanted to have a conversation with somebody and it was important not to be overheard by anyone, all you had to do was take a walk in the countryside. So there was no need to make laws about these things.

    Today, an entire industry has grown up, monitoring people's behaviour online in ways that would not have been possible in a traditional context without at the very least having someone turn around to you and ask "WTF is wrong with you? Leave me alone, you creep!"

    And now there is a generation of kids growing up never having known what it's like not to be under continuous surveillance. These really aren't good conditions for any efforts to pass privacy laws.

    Intrusive mass surveillance is always sold as a weapon against criminals, but nobody is ever more than one government vote away from becoming a criminal. And Angry from Tunbridge Wells writes to the local paper, saying "If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear" -- but he still seals the letter in an envelope.

  12. Conundrum1885 Bronze badge

    Cellphone cameras ?!?!

    Hmm.. Sounds a bit like the system CERN are using to track particles.

    So does this mean high density cameras are "Dual Use" (tm) ?

    What does this mean for Raspberry Pi, are we going to need a security clearance to buy more than one unit at a time?

  13. Chris G Silver badge

    Hmm! Balloons at 65.000 ft?

    Gonna need a bigger shotgun.

    1. A random security guy

      Re: Hmm! Balloons at 65.000 ft?

      Your options are limited: AA gun (120mm M1) and limited to the US government, SAM (limited access), and homing balloons.

      Shotgun? In the good old South they would take pot-shots at the blink lights on smart meters because people thought they were aliens.

    2. GrumpyKiwi

      Re: Hmm! Balloons at 65.000 ft?

      I'm thinking lasers. Possibly fired from rocket propelled sharks. Nothing else is going to reach them up there.

      1. Ken 16 Silver badge

        Re: Hmm! Balloons at 65.000 ft?

        Why not rockets from laser propelled sharks? You can build a more powerful ground based laser launch system.

  14. A random security guy

    It is for own safety and we should have nothing to hide </sarcasm>

    I hate to say this but the Military Industrial Complex has actually some validity versus my field of computing where we have sold our soul to the government, FB, Google, Amazon, etc. for no benefit in the long run.

  15. david 12 Bronze badge

    Particularly over cities?

    Rubbish. This will be contentious particularly because it gives oversight of rural areas.

    Cities are already heavily monitored, and the people who live there know they are being watched by cameras and other people at all time. Out in the country, they aren't used to having people watch them all the time, and they won't like it.

  16. Jove Bronze badge

    Risks ...

    ... I wonder if they have fully assessed the risks of such a vehicle - and the equipment it carries - falling into the wrong hands - such as being brought down by anomaly weather events or incapacity via weaponry?

    1. Ken 16 Silver badge

      Re: Risks ...

      Who would the wrong hands belong to?

      1. Jove Bronze badge

        Re: Risks ...

        Anyone that is not a member of the USA security community.

  17. MudFever

    New Mexico

    I wonder if any will end up landing in South-East New Mexico...

    1. Nunyabiznes

      Re: New Mexico

      You forgot --->

      But nice none the less.

  18. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    There should be audible warning noises...

    Coming from the balloons...


    a) eezer good eezer good. Eezer Good he's Ebeneezer Goode....ah hah hah hah haaaaa...anyone got any salmon?

    Or my personal favourite...


    1. Conundrum1885 Bronze badge

      Re: There should be audible warning noises...

      Poker Face. Or better still Macarena.

      Failing that, Hot Stuff. (The Martian)

  19. Baldy1138

    Ah, 1983

    I would just like to say that It really made my day to be reminded of this great song.

    Carry on.

  20. Walter Bishop Silver badge
    Big Brother

    Deter narcotic trafficking and terror threats?

    "conduct high altitude MESH networking tests over South Dakota to provide a persistent surveillance system to locate and deter narcotic trafficking and homeland security threats."

    It's puzzling that the DHS haven't gone after the narcotic trafficker finances. Same with the international arms trade, surly the DHS should be able to trace the arms back to the manufacturers.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Deter narcotic trafficking and terror threats?

      Drug traffickers are masters of money laundering. By the time the money comes back to the US, it's often too remote and tied up with legitimate interests to really pick out.

      And the arms trade doesn't have to go through the US or any interests tied to the US, meaning they have no leverage.

      1. Jove Bronze badge

        Re: Deter narcotic trafficking and terror threats?

        There is also a problem with bringing a successful prosecution without compromising the methods by which the evidence was collected.

  21. Conundrum1885 Bronze badge

    Not allowed to

    Get hold of some of those "10 second audio" COB modules, preprogram them with something loud and squeaky then attach them to my drones so when something does go wrong I can audibly locate them despite ambient noise

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