U.S. Security Concerns Mount Over Chinese Drones

 - November 3, 2019, 11:16 AM

The U.S. Department of Interior is standing down its 800-plus drone fleet either of Chinese origin or that carry Chinese components pending a security review, the department announced last week. The move came days after the House Committee on Homeland Security voted to ban the U.S. government purchase of Chinese drones for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). It's the latest measure highlighting potential security concerns voiced by lawmakers and other government officials regarding the potential for Chinese companies and the Chinese government to misuse data from U.S.-based drones for nefarious purposes. 

Concern about the issue was first widely publicized in 2017 when separate organizations within the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy issued memoranda outlining technological and operational risks associated with Chinese-manufactured drones, and the Army ordered its forces to stop using them. Separately that year, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued an unclassified memo that flagged drones manufactured by China’s DJI, the world’s largest manufacturer of recreational UAS, as a security risk. In 2017, DJI held an estimated 50 percent share of the North American market and nearly 70 percent of the North American market for UASs priced between $1,000 and $4,000. DJI drones are widely used by a variety of public safety and infrastructure entities in the U.S., from fire departments in Los Angeles and New York to the country’s largest railroads and water and power utilities. In a 2018 report, Bard College’s Center for the Study of the Drone noted that of the 910 U.S. state and local public safety entities using drones, 523 had DJI models. 

DJI has repeatedly and vociferously denied charges that data from its drones is used for illicit purposes such as espionage, but did admit that its data was shared with the Chinese government as it applies to drone operations in China to comply with “location-specific rules and policies within China” related to registration and no-fly zones.

To further assuage security concerns, in July 2019, DJI unveiled a special “Government Edition” drone line designed to safeguard sensitive data. The new drones have architecture that ensures that drone data—including photos and videos captured during flight—never leave the drone and therefore can never be shared with unauthorized parties, including DJI. 

In a letter to the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation written in June, DJI’s Mario Rebello, vice president and regional manager for North America, pointed out that DJI drones have multiple safeguards to ensure against data misuse, including embedded passwords, data encryption, and internet disconnect. But neither DJI’s newer, more secure model nor the company’s security assurances appear to have persuaded a bipartisan group of six U.S. senators, who in September introduced the American Security Drone Act of 2019, which would ban U.S. Government entities from acquiring or operating any drone made by any entity considered a threat to national security, including China.  

“Our taxpayer dollars shouldn’t be used to support Chinese-developed technologies that undercut American companies and put our national security at risk,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut). “We know that China and other adversaries have used drones to spy and collect sensitive data in the past, and I’ve heard directly from companies in Connecticut that are concerned about this issue.” Murphy called China “a bad actor.” Connecticut is home to key U.S. defense contractors including a defense electronics arm of Northrop Grumman, jet engine maker Pratt & Whitney, Lockheed Martin’s Sikorsky Helicopters and the Electric Boat division of General Dynamics, which builds nuclear attack and ballistic-missile submarines. 

Similar bipartisan legislation to that in the Senate, The Drone Origin Security Act (H.R. 4753), has been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives and was unanimously approved by the House Committee on Homeland Security on October 23. The bill bars the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) from operating drones from “strategic competitors” as identified by the Department of Defense. China is so identified.