Surveillance Blimps Will Watch Over East Coast

Two blimp-like aircraft will have range stretching from North Carolina to Lake Erie

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Two surveillance blimps with monitoring capabilities that extend from Raleigh, N.C. to the shores of Lake Erie are set to go airborne in October, The Washington Post reports, sparking concerns among privacy activists over a growing domestic surveillance apparatus.

The blimp-like aircraft will float at 10,000 feet while being anchored to the ground at a U.S. Army site about 45 miles northeast of Washington D.C.  The system over Maryland, known as JLENS—short for Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System—will be in place first for a three-year trial period. Its role will be to detect potential cruise missile attacks and enemy vehicles approaching the eastern seaboard, the Army says.

[MORE: How the Air Force lost an $8 million blimp nearly the size of a football field]

Similar systems, sometimes including sophisticated cameras, have been used at military outposts in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as on the U.S.-Mexico border. The Army says it has “no current plans” to outfit JLENS with high-powered cameras or to share data with law enforcement but declined to rule out the possibility, according to the Post.

“Once a surveillance technology is put up, it’s very tempting for law enforcement or the military to use it for reasons they did not originally disclose,” said Jennifer Lynch of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

According to a March 2013 GAO report, the total program cost of JLENS is more than $2.7 billion, following cost increases and schedule delays.

[The Washington Post]