(WIRED) — For governments seeking to hide controversial programs from their citizens, there are few better directions to transmit secret military and espionage communications than straight up. Unlike here on earth, no pesky amateur radio eavesdroppers or curious hackers monitor the open sky between ground control and a drone—not to mention between that drone and its communication satellite perched miles higher up.
One small crew of hackers is trying to pierce that stratospheric secrecy zone with a high-altitude flying—or at least floating—machine of their own. The three members of a socially motivated movement of technologists known as Critical Engineering have developed and begun testing an “aerospace probe” they call the Deep Sweep. The invention, described in their own detailed writeup, is a 1-foot-diameter acrylic orb packed with radio equipment and attached to a 8.2-foot diameter helium-filled weather balloon. As it floats up more than 15 miles into the earth’s atmosphere, the probe’s antennae are designed to record a wide range of radio data to be analyzed when the probe is recovered hours or days later. The project’s goal: to pioneer a new form of public, crowd-sourced data collection for tracking the communications of a secret layer of government sky machines—drones, satellites and high-altitude planes.