07/29/2013 11:59 am ET | Updated Sep 28, 2013

A New Era of Surveillance Technology


When Raytheon's two massive JLENS aerostats deploy over Washington, D.C. next year, they will usher in a new era for surveillance technology in the United States. While many privacy activists have their sights set on military drones and internet-based surveillance programs, the Army is set to begin testing a system capable of monitoring airspace for 340 miles in every direction -- and capable of monitoring boats, vehicles, and possibly people on the ground below.

Recently used during combat operations in Afghanistan, the JLENS system is likely a cheaper long-term alternative to current fixed-wing aircraft surveillance over the national capital region, despite the initial $450 million price tag. With no dependence on fossil fuels, no noise, and minimal visibility, JLENS promises to be more environmentally friendly than alternative security and surveillance technologies. At this point, however, it has not been announced whether or not JLENS is intended to be a replacement or a supplement to existing technologies.

While Raytheon continues to praise the surveillance technology breakthroughs hidden within the aerostats' 4500-pound payload, most of their capabilities remain classified. With little government transparency on the testing goals and Raytheon functioning as the primary source of information, there have been very few questions asked about the potential downsides of the program.

Aerostats, unlike blimps, are fixed to the ground by a complex communications tether. While seemingly innocuous, this could potentially create a catastrophe if an errant aircraft were to collide with it at any point in its 10,000-foot span. While this is unlikely given that the aerostat itself would be able to monitor and respond to such a threat, it is not unprecedented: in September 2010, a non-JLENS tethered aircraft broke loose from its mooring during severe weather, resulting in a collision with a JLENS aerostat above a testing facility in Elizabeth City, North Carolina. Both aircraft were deemed total losses. Drastic atmospheric changes are fairly common in the Mid-Atlantic region. The infamous 'derecho' of June 2012 caused $2.9 billion of damage and dozens of deaths in a matter of hours. Residents in the region know that a summer afternoon can go from sunny to severe in mere minutes. Will JLENS be able to cope with frequent changes in weather?

Perhaps more important than severe weather and safety threats are privacy concerns. While some tech-heads imagine a stadium full of football fans gleefully smiling up towards the sky to wave hello to Uncle Sam, others are not so excited at yet another government program aimed at monitoring the movements and actions of U.S. citizens. If and when JLENS transitions to operational from its testing phase, what exactly will it do?

While the most frequently touted capability of the unarmed JLENS system is to provide real-time tracking coordinates for incoming enemy cruise missiles -- allowing other existing defense network systems to then mitigate the threat -- this seems to be a highly unlikely possibility in the Washington, D.C. region. It doesn't seem likely that JLENS would be helpful in responding to aircraft entering restricted airspace either. Operation Noble Eagle, which went into effect minutes after 9/11 and still continues today, requires fighter jets to be scrambled to escort the offending aircraft to safety. It is unlikely that JLENS would provide any additional security benefit to existing air traffic control systems. More interesting is the aerostats' capability to track and monitor unmanned aircraft -- drones -- in the region, which are often much smaller and more difficult to identify. Whether or not hostile drones become a significant security threat is yet to be seen, but still seems somewhat unlikely.

In a region relatively free of hostile missiles, what will JLENS be most likely to monitor? We know from the many Raytheon reports that JLENS is capable of tracking hundreds of threats simultaneously, 360-degrees for 340 miles. What does the Mid-Atlantic corridor offer that Elizabeth City, NC and rural Afghanistan do not? Traffic. More specifically, JLENS is capable of tracking individual vehicles. The ability to continuously monitor the vehicular movements of potential terrorists, or any potential criminal for that matter, presents an enormous advantage to law enforcement agencies.

While appearing less menacing than drones, the JLENS aerostat presents the exact same privacy concerns as their mobile counterparts and then some. Operational for 30 consecutive days at a time, the friendly-looking aerostats will monitor movements in the sky, on the land, and in our driveways for an undetermined amount of time. We don't yet know the full extent of the surveillance, or the likely uses of the technology above Washington, D.C.

Like it or not, the program is set to deploy at the Aberdeen, Maryland proving grounds as soon as next year. It may very well bolster our national security resources in a time where we must adapt to new technologies in order to combat an increasingly sophisticated array of enemy resources. It may also be a building block in a new super-surveillance state, where citizens' movements are recorded and stored for the government to keep and use. For that reason, we as citizens should demand and expect full and transparent reports from our government on the JLENS program's capabilities, environmental impacts, safety concerns, and potential uses before this technology becomes fully operational.

Tyler is a master's candidate in Georgetown University's Communication, Culture & Technology program. His research interests range from defense and cyber-defense technology policy to the intersection of new media and foreign policy. He recently completed an in-depth look at JLENS technology as part of a group project in that program. All opinions are his own.