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Military Surveillance Balloon Test's Scope Includes Central Illinois

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Satellite image of downtown Peoria

Military surveillance balloons originally launched in South Dakota are making their way to central Illinois to conduct wide-area surveillance tests.

The U.S. Department of Defense's U.S. Southern Command commissioned the balloons from Sierra Nevada Corporation, a private company based out of Colorado.

They’re meant to perform “networking tests” of a surveillance system to “locate and deter” drug trafficking and homeland security threats, per the company's application with the Federal Communications Commission.

Ed Yohnka, with the ACLU of Illinois, says it’s unclear what information is being collected and who has access to it.

“Especially when you have these public-private partnerships, where the information is shared. All of those implications for our privacy are heightened because they don’t necessarily come with the kind of controls that we might expect from government," Yohnka said. 

Yohnka said the data collected could potentially be stored by both the military and the private company.

Credit FCC
The projected flight plan for the surveillance balloons. They are launched from South Dakota and ending their flight in Central Illinois by Sept. 1.

Sierra Nevada was licensed to fly the balloons across six Midwest states from mid-July to September 1. The testing is set to conclude in Central Illinois, with Peoria, the Quad Cities, Galesburg, Bloomington-Normal and Champaign-Urbana likely within testing range. 

Sierra Nevada is known for the Gorgon Stare wide-area surveillance camera mounted on drones deployed in Afghanistan. The cameras provide high-quality aerial images, day or night. It's unknown if the surveillance balloons deployed across the American heartland utilize similar technology. 

The existence of the program was first reported in The Guardian. 

Dana Vollmer is a reporter with WGLT. Dana previously covered the state Capitol for NPR Illinois and Peoria for WCBU.