The Army is planning to launch a pair of blimps over Maryland this fall to watch the Eastern Seaboard for incoming cruise missiles.
It's what else they might be able to see from up there that worries privacy advocates.
The Army says the aerostats — blimps that will be tethered to the ground in Harford and Baltimore counties — will carry technology capable of detecting, tracking and targeting cruise missiles and rockets up to 340 miles away. That means they can cover an area from North Carolina to the Canadian border.
The helium-filled aircraft, which have been deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq, are on their way to Aberdeen Proving Ground. Officials are planning a three-year exercise to test the system's effectiveness in the National Capital Region.
"People have been using balloons for military purposes since the Civil War," said Maj. Beth Smith, a spokeswoman for U.S. Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command. "There's a couple that are flying right now; we use them all the time, and they work great."
But the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, which has pushed the General Assembly for legislation to limit the deployment of drones in the state, is raising concerns about the surveillance technology to be mounted on the aerostats and whether it might be trained on private citizens.
The Electronic Privacy Information Center, meanwhile, has sued the Army for details about the equipment and its capabilities.
"It's designed to be a system that can surveil a large area," said Ginger McCall, an attorney for the Washington-based center. "That would have profound implications for the way that people would choose to live their lives."
The Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System, or JLENS, comes to Maryland at a time of rising concern over government eavesdropping. The past year has brought a succession of revelations about the collection of telephone and email data by the National Security Agency, a Defense Department organization headquartered at Fort Meade.
The Army says the aerostats to be tested over Aberdeen Proving Ground will be outfitted only with radar, not cameras. Smith says the system will be "looking outward," for external threats.
"There's no intent to spy on any Americans with this," she said. "It's an exercise."
Privacy advocates note a demonstration last year by defense contractor Raytheon, which boasted in a news release that it had successfully equipped a JLENS aerostat with electro-optical infrared sensors, "enabling operators to watch [a] live feed of trucks, trains and cars from dozens of miles away."
As part of the demonstration, Raytheon reported, operators were able to observe actors placing a mock roadside bomb in the Utah desert.
It's that kind of technology that concerns David Rocha, an attorney with the ACLU of Maryland.
"We don't really care about radar being aimed into the Atlantic Ocean to detect cruise missiles," Rocha said. "There's no privacy implications in cruise missiles. But they have said that this same technology can also detect vehicles on the ground, and that they're not ruling out mounting other surveillance technology on this platform. And that does raise huge concerns."
McCall warns of "mission creep."
"Oftentimes a new technology that's very invasive will at first be proposed as a military technology," she said. "It will be rolled out oftentimes in Middle East conflicts. So, for instance, the drones. Or some of the facial recognition technology. These things are first used in conflict zones.
"And then they begin to be used domestically. At first, they're usually couched as an antiterrorism tool. And then there's mission creep from there, and it becomes a tool that's used for garden-variety law enforcement."
McCall says Americans expect not to be watched or tracked by the government in their everyday lives.
"They go to doctor's appointments. They might go to an abortion clinic, or a psychiatrist's office. They might go to a political protest," she said. "Your religious activity or associations — all of these things, people expect privacy in."
Rocha warned of the "movement of battlefield technology to the domestic sphere."
"What's appropriate in a battlefield is not appropriate here," he said. "Maryland is not a battlefield, and we are not the enemy."
Smith says she understands the advocates' questions.
"We recognize that people take these concerns seriously," she said. But the system "is designed to link in with existing infrastructures to better protect the nation. And it's an exercise to see how well it does that. … There's no hidden purpose."
Army officials have been trying to head off public concern about the exercise. Once launched, scheduled to start in October, the aerostats — 243 feet long, bright white and nearly 2 miles up — will be obvious to motorists on Interstate 95. On a clear day, they'll be visible from downtown Baltimore.
Representatives of Aberdeen Proving Ground have been visiting the surrounding community to let neighbors know what's coming.
"We are certain this will generate phone calls and Internet and social media buzz," Kelly Luster, a spokesman for the Army installation, told the Harford County Council during a presentation this month. "I say this because the aerostats are quite large and they're visible for about 50 miles."
So far, however, the public has shown little interest. About 25 people attended a hearing in January on wetlands permits for the project; most were members of the military or its contractors. During the portion of the hearing set aside for public comments, no one spoke.
Spokespersons for Harford County, where Aberdeen Proving Ground is based, and for Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, in whose district the aerostats are to be deployed, say they have received no questions or complaints from the public.
"It is our understanding that the mission is to test new and much-needed surveillance equipment to protect us from air attacks as countries like Iran, China and Russia work to develop their own cruise missiles," said Ruppersberger, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. "And we'll be in regular contact with the Army to make sure that remains the case."
Ruppersberger and other officials have promoted the economic benefits of the exercise for the region. Up to 150 workers, a mix of service members and civilians, are to begin arriving in August.
Officials plan to construct pads, buildings, utilities and parking for each of the aerostats, which are to be tethered 4 miles apart — one within the Edgewood area of Aberdeen Proving Ground, the other on Graces Quarters Road, southeast of the Hammerman Area of Gunpowder Falls State Park in Baltimore County.
Army officials say the aircraft can stay aloft for up to 30 days at a time, many times longer than helicopters or airplanes, and they're much cheaper to operate.
They are to be tethered to the ground with 10,000-foot Kevlar cables that contain power lines and fiber optics. The elevation extends the range of the radar.
"JLENS works for the same reason that you can see further when you are in a 10-story building then you can from the ground," said Smith, the NORAD spokeswoman.
The aerostats are making their way to Maryland from Utah, where soldiers and civilians from Dugway Proving Ground have spent the last three years testing them in the Snake Valley.
The Citizens Education Project in Salt Lake City raised concerns about the use of drones as targets during the testing in Utah, the possibility of a crash or fire, and whether the project was the best use of public money.
It is not clear whether drones are to be used during the exercise at Aberdeen Proving Ground.
Steve Erickson, the director of the Citizens Education Project, said there was no public outcry in Utah about privacy.
"This is quite a remote area where they were operating in," Erickson said. "It was out on military land in the Utah Test and Training Range. That's inaccessible to the general public.
"While you could see these two blimps from the freeway, there's no residences out there."
twitter.com/matthewhaybrownCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun