Brief

Elected officials express privacy concerns over surveillance balloons

By: - August 12, 2019 7:15 am

Pentagon satellite image by U.S. Geological Survey

The Pentagon and Department Of Homeland Security’s ongoing high-altitude surveillance blimp tests are raising serious privacy concerns for people in the Midwest. First reported by The Guardian and last Thursday in the Wisconsin Examiner,  the Pentagon blimps are  scanning parts of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Missouri and Iowa, potentially for “narcotics trafficking and homeland security threats.”

“At the current moment, we have many more questions than answers,” Rep. Melissa Sargent (D-Madison) says. “I truly understand the concerns of those who see this military action as an infringement of individual autonomy.”

State Rep. Melissa Sargent

The balloons, owned by the Sierra Nevada Corporation, launched from rural South Dakota on July 12, with a license issued by the Federal Communications Commission that expires on  on September 1. Like similar balloons in Afghanistan, the craft are capable of detecting vehicles up to 65,000 feet below, the Guardian reports.

“I think that it’s a big problem when we’re all under surveillance,” says California-based privacy activist Mike Katz-Lacabe. His ’s work at the Center for Human Rights and Privacy is dedicated to understanding police surveillance technologies.

Katz-Lacabe believes that perpetual surveillance “turns traditional investigations kind of on their heads.” Whereas before police would respond to a crime and gather evidence, mass surveillance means, “we have the police investigating everybody all the time. We’re basically all under suspicion.” He’s particularly disturbed by, “the fact that it’s the Defense Department doing this domestically.”

Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul

The office of Attorney General Josh Kaul responded to a query on the surveillance with this statement: “The Department of Justice is committed both to keeping Wisconsinites safe and to protecting their rights. Combating large-scale drug trafficking is a priority for this administration, but we—and federal agencies—must also ensure that investigative efforts do not infringe on Wisconsinites’ reasonable expectations of privacy.”

State officials  continue to learn about the program as it unfolds. “As I continue to monitor and look into this issue,” says Sargent, “I am dedicated to ensuring that all people have the fundamental right to privacy, and will advocate against policies that infringe on the well-being and safety of all Wisconsinites.”

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Isiah Holmes
Isiah Holmes

Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Holmes' video work dates back to his high school days at Wauwatosa East High, when he made a documentary about the local police department. Since then, his writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, the Progressive Magazine, Al Jazeera, and other outlets. He was also featured in the 2018 documentary The Chase Key, and was the recipient of the Sierra Club Great Waters Group 2021 Environmental Hero of the Year award. The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council also awarded Holmes its 2021-2022 Media Openness Award for using the open records laws for investigative journalism. Holmes was also a finalist in the 2021 Milwaukee Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards alongside the rest of the Wisconsin Examiner's staff. The Silver, or second place, award for Best Online Coverage of News was awarded to Holmes and his colleague Henry Redman for an investigative series into how police responded to the civil unrest and protests in Kenosha during 2020. Holmes was also awarded the Press Club's Silver (second-place) award for Public Service Journalism for articles focusing on police surveillance in Wisconsin.

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