Chinese spy balloons: what we know so far about ‘surveillance’ balloons - why would China send them to US?

A series of unidentified objects have been shot down over North America days after a Chinese ‘spy’ balloon was shot down off the coast of South Carolina
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The mystery surrounding the recent objects shot out of North American airspace continues, with theories including that the devices are of Chinese origin for surveillance purposes.

Officials have shot down at least four objects in two weeks, with one said to be a balloon laden with surveillance equipment for the purpose of detecting mobile and radio signals. However, this accusation has been disputed by China.

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While China and the US have clashed over what the possible use for the device could be, questions have been raised over the reason they appeared in North America.

The spate of incidents has caused concern over national security amongst the US and Canadian governments. Theories have also swirled that the three other unidentified objects could be of alien origin.

But what threat do the balloons pose to our lives - and why were they sent in the first place? Here’s everything you need to know about the current situation.

What was shot out of the sky in North America?

We know that the first object was shot out of the skies over US territorial water on 4 February off the coast of South Carolina. Authorities quickly deduced that the unidentified object was a balloon-style object of Chinese origin which had the ability to locate electronic devices such as mobile phones and radios.

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The three subsequent devices found have not yet been identified. These were shot down in Yukon, Alaska and Lake Huron on February 7, 10 and 11 respectively.

The recent uptick in the amount of devices being shot down may correlate directly to the fact that security around US airspace has been heightened following the first balloon being found.

(Credit: Mark Hall/NationalWorld)(Credit: Mark Hall/NationalWorld)
(Credit: Mark Hall/NationalWorld)

Melissa Dalton, the assistant defence secretary for US Homeland Defense and Hemispheric Affairs, said: "In light of the People’s Republic of China balloon that we took down last Saturday, we have been more closely scrutinising our airspace at these altitudes, including enhancing our radar, which may at least partly explain the increase in objects that we’ve detected over the past week.”

What did China say about the ‘spy’ balloon?

China has denied that the balloon found in the first instance has been used to track or spy on the the US. Mao Ning, spokesperson of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said: "It is a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological purposes. Affected by the Westerlies and with limited self-steering capability, the airship deviated far from its planned course."

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Chinese officials also criticised the US for its decision to shoot down the balloon and its subsequent investigations. Mao added that the US had “hyped up the incident on purpose” as tensions between the two nations continue to flare over the China-Taiwan situation.

US authorities have said that a ‘spy’ balloon used by China is part of a fleet tracking more than 40 countries. (Credit: Getty Images)US authorities have said that a ‘spy’ balloon used by China is part of a fleet tracking more than 40 countries. (Credit: Getty Images)
US authorities have said that a ‘spy’ balloon used by China is part of a fleet tracking more than 40 countries. (Credit: Getty Images)

Why would China send a balloon to the US?

While China has denied any use of surveillance equipment over the US, American officials have continued to insist that the balloon is just one of many used to track countries across the world.

However, is the situation only about surveillance? Dr Dan Lomas, a senior lecturer in intelligence and security at Brunel University London, explained that there may also be a political motive over the appearance of the devices.

He said: “The amount of intelligence that’s going to be collected from a balloon is perhaps not the same amount of intelligence you can get from extensive satellite coverage over a particular target. So it may be that what we’re seeing is a test of a political message.

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“Overflights of US territory are intended as a marker by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to say we can annoy you as much as you potentially in our backyard.”

A Chinese balloon drifts above the Atlantic Ocean, just off the coast of South Carolina, shortly before it was shot down by a US fighter jet  (Picture: Chad Fish via AP)A Chinese balloon drifts above the Atlantic Ocean, just off the coast of South Carolina, shortly before it was shot down by a US fighter jet  (Picture: Chad Fish via AP)
A Chinese balloon drifts above the Atlantic Ocean, just off the coast of South Carolina, shortly before it was shot down by a US fighter jet (Picture: Chad Fish via AP)

Current political tensions between the US and China have remained frosty over the status of Taiwan in the South China Sea. China is attempting to “reunify” Taiwan with the mainland - the US is willing to defend Taiwan against this.

Dr Lomas continued: “It’s difficult to assess whether or not that’s motivated it, but you can see that the South China Sea has growing tension between China alongside the US, Taiwan, and its regional allies on the opposite side. It may be the case that this is an attempt to kind of just wind the Americans up slightly by conducting a balloon over their airspace.

“They are potentially testing US defence systems, measuring the emission of radar for testing how the US might respond to an interception of the US airspace.”

Should we be worried about ‘surveillance’ balloons?

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The balloons themselves don’t quite bring a risk to people’s day-to-day lives, but they have been branded a “distraction” from China’s other surveillance methods.

Dr Lomas said: “In terms of the day-to-day lives of individuals then this is information collection and there was no risk of getting hurt by this.

“These are balloons which cannot be kind of steered in an effective direction. So they’re pretty much subject to atmospheric changes, which means that they’re not particularly reliable when it comes to plotting a particular route or hovering over a particular site for sustaining the collection of intelligence.

“The balloons for me are a bit of a distraction because China already has extensive intelligence capability, both here in the UK, US and other Western countries. And it can collect extensive intelligence via a number of means.”

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The UK government has previously warned over China’s possible threat to national security with incidents such as the banning of Chinese phone operator Huawei from using the 5G phone network and the Foreign Affairs Select Committee warning of social media site TikTok and its data collection.

Dr Lomas said: “It’s something not to be worried about in terms of physical harm but going forward as a country for national security, then we do need to be fully alive to the risks posed by the PRC.”

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