U.S. Army to Test Blimps With Capacity to Surveil East Coast
David Rocah: Blimps that will be tested in Aberdeen, Maryland have the capability to monitor airspace from North Carolina to Boston, as military technology is increasingly used in domestic law enforcement
JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.
The U.S. Army is getting ready to deploy two military surveillance blimps, called aerostats, for three years of testing over Maryland. The blimps will have a surveillance range of over 300 miles, allowing it to monitor air space from Raleigh, North Carolina, all the way to Boston. The Army says they will use the technology to thwart cruise missiles and detect enemy aircraft and it is not planning to equip the blimps with surveillance equipment.
Now joining us to discuss the legality and the privacy issues raised by this is David Rocah. He is the senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Maryland.
Thanks for joining us, David.
DAVID ROCAH, SENIOR STAFF ATTORNEY, ACLU OF MARYLAND: Thank you very much for having me on.
DESVARIEUX: So, David, as you know, our headquarters is here in Baltimore. And this story really just floored me. My first question is: is this even legal?
ROCAH: The short answer is probably yes. There’s no statutory controls on this type of technology. And the only legal control, if it exists, is the Fourth Amendment, the Constitution’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures.
Our view is that the Fourth Amendment does impose limits on persistent government surveillance, aerial surveillance of individuals’ movements. And that was reinforced in the U.S. v. Jones GPS case from a few terms ago in the Supreme Court.
But these technologies and the specific technology that’s being used on these blimps has never been in domestic courts, because it’s technology that has not been deployed domestically yet. What we have here is military technology, military surveillance technology moving from the battlefield to domestic use. And that is an issue that the ACLU has been very concerned about and has raised alarms about for some time.
What is also at issue here is the kind of persistent aerial surveillance which for personnel and technological reasons has not seen a widespread deployment domestically, but all of that is changing with the movement of another military technology–drones–to the domestic sphere.
Congress has told the FAA, the Federal Aviation Administration, to write rules governing domestic drone use. Those rules are due next year, and everyone expects a huge explosion in drone use, both by private companies and by law enforcement.
Here in Maryland, we are working with senators and members of the State House from across the political spectrum, most quite conservative and quite progressive, to put in place state statutory controls over drone surveillance before it happens and before it becomes a problem, because the privacy implications of persistent aerial surveillance of our movements are huge. And the blimp technology that was described in the Post article last week is really drones on steroids, because they’re up in the air 24/7 for a month at a time, and the amount of ground that they can surveil, even with the technology that’s currently mounted on them, is huge. As you said, 300-plus miles is their surveillance of airspace. But even–these blimps can also monitor vehicles on the ground, both on land and on sea, and they can do that at a range of 140 miles in radius, so a circle with a diameter of 280 miles, which is huge. And that’s with the radar technology. Cameras can also be mounted on these blimps. They are in the battlefield. And what was quite disturbing and telling was that the Pentagon was unwilling to rule out whether mounting cameras on these blimps here in Maryland–they say they want to use them to test the technology. Our view is that Maryland is not a battlefield, the people of Maryland are not the enemy, and we are not test subjects for the Pentagon’s surveillance technologies.
DESVARIEUX: I’m so glad that you mentioned earlier about how the statutory laws that are not on the books to really hold the Pentagon accountable because the technology didn’t really exist, but there are ways to get some legal safeguards for everyday citizens. Can you speak a little bit to how you’re doing that there at the ACLU, and also speak to what is some of the pushback that you’re getting? I know Raytheon has this contract. So how does that play?
ROCAH: Well, the ACLU is working mostly in state legislatures around the country because Congress is so dysfunctional and gridlocked. But in state legislatures around the country, the ACLU is working, as I mentioned, on the drone issue here in Maryland and elsewhere and on other issues involving surveillance technology and surveillance, particularly in connected to the issue we’re talking about today, law enforcement use of cell phone location data to turn our cell phones into personalized government tracking tools.
All of these issues are important, because our privacy statutes have not caught up with our technological capabilities. And so there is a need to both, in some cases, with respect to the cell phone technology, update our statutes so that they are at a par with the technological capabilities, and in the case of drones, to write new statutes to regulate domestic drone use before it becomes the privacy nightmare that it could become.
DESVARIEUX: Alright. David Rocah, thank you so much for joining us.
ROCAH: Thank you for having me.
DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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