Before the rest of the country learned about a Chinese spy balloon hovering over American territory, U.S. intelligence officials were quietly gathering intel on the balloon — including which US internet service provider it used to navigate and send information back to China.
An Air Force F-22 fighter jet shot the balloon down off the coast of South Carolina in February after the device floated across the United States for more than a week.
During that time, U.S. intelligence officials were tracking the balloon, NBC News reported, citing two current and one former U.S. official close to the matter. They learned the balloon used a U.S.-based internet service provider, according to NBC News, which declined to name the internet company to protect the identities of their sources.
The anonymous officials said the Biden Administration sought a court order allowing intelligence officials to surveil the balloon as it made its way across the states.
Though it's unclear whether the order was granted, the U.S. officials told NBC News that intelligence was gathered during the balloon's journey, including the messages sent to and from China using the U.S. internet company.
At the time, China insisted the balloon was being used for "mainly meteorological" purposes. In a statement to NBC News about the internet service it reportedly used, Liu Pengyu, a spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, maintained it was a weather balloon.
The Chinese Embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Business Insider.
The balloon traveled from Alaska and Canada to the coast of South Carolina before the U.S. military shot it down.
While in flight, the balloon, which officials named Killeen-23, had reportedly been sending real-time intel about U.S. military sites in Beijing, NBC News reported in April, citing two senior U.S. officials and one former senior Biden administration official.
According to officials who spoke with NBC, the electronic signals collected by the balloon could have included communications between base personnel or signals from weapons systems.
Pentagon documents later leaked by a 21-year-old U.S. National Guard airman revealed that a high-altitude balloon with surveillance capabilities could have used synthetic aperture radar, which uses electromagnetic data to create high-resolution images.
At the time, the Chinese government initially denied the balloon was Chinese but later said it was only a weather balloon that veered off-course.