Arthur Holland Michel, a senior fellow at Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs and co-founder of the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College, is the author of “Eyes in the Sky: The Secret Rise of Gorgon Stare and How It Will Watch Us All.”
As U.S. officials were quick to note on Thursday, the balloon is unlikely to have gathered any novel intelligence that China couldn’t already have accessed by other means. Yet the balloon has captured something just as precious: our attention.
This makes the incident an important lesson about both the power and increasing pervasiveness of aerial surveillance technology.
Things that watch us from the sky are frightening. Balloons, drones, satellites and spy planes all inspire a primal sense of helplessness. If you know that something up there may be watching you, something perhaps so high or so small that you cannot see it for yourself, it’s easy to fear that your every move could be tracked.
This effect can be so profound as to linger even when nothing’s up there. Next time Americans see an unfamiliar speck in the sky, they’ll be much more likely to think it’s another Chinese incursion — even if it’s merely the twinkle of a planet or an errant birthday balloon.
So even if the balloon’s tactical value was nominal, its psychological impact has been significant. It perhaps adds some insult to injury that America’s airspace — and, by extension, its collective sense of security — was pierced by a lumbering sack of gas traveling no faster than a sturdy wind.
This has been by no means an isolated incursion, however. It is becoming more and more likely that any specks seen in the sky are, in fact, something that spies on you. Other methods of watching from above, especially drones, are becoming cheaper and more easily available, and there’s a strong probability that U.S. competitors have already dispatched them to snoop into America’s backyard.
In recent years, for instance, small uncrewed aircraft have been spotted with spooky consistency near sensitive military facilities and assets. As have dozens of “unidentified aerial phenomena.” Though these sightings have yet to be pinned to a culprit, Chinese spooks are thought to be high on the list of suspects.
More broadly, the Pentagon’s claim that the balloon probably did not collect any novel intelligence speaks to the sad reality that our sense of being perpetually watched from above is well grounded. In recent years, Earth imaging satellites have been launched into orbit over our heads in astonishing numbers, both by governments — including China, which launched four sets of Yaogan Earth observation satellites in 2022 alone — and a growing cadre of commercial companies such as BlackSky and Planet Labs. Whereas a decade ago most places on Earth would have been overflown by a surveillance satellite only every few days or weeks, now, for many of us, it might never be more than a few hours since something has snapped a picture over our heads.
Nor is it solely the prying digital eyes of nefarious foreign balloons and spy sats that the public ought to be concerned about. In the past decade, aerial surveillance has quietly become a common practice among domestic police agencies at every level of government.
Federal law enforcement runs an impressive fleet of spy planes, some of which are operated by secretive shell companies that make it difficult to know precisely their number or what purpose they serve. Meanwhile, drones, mostly of the small, commercial variety, have been acquired by hundreds of local police forces.
Balloons might join these burgeoning aerial arsenals. The Pentagon has of late taken an intense interest in stratospheric balloons that can loiter in one spot for extended periods. It would come as no surprise if these, too, were to someday fall into the hands of domestic police agencies. Then, we would have all the more reason to duck for the cover at the sight of a speck in the sky.