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To Ban or Not to Ban—The Ongoing Federal Debate about the Use of Chinese Drones

BY Zacc Dukowitz
13 February 2020

News broke recently that the Department of the Interior (DOI) plans to keep its drones grounded due to security concerns, joining the growing list of federal entities that don’t trust Chinese drones, and specifically DJI drones.

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The DOI grounding its fleet is a product of fears that data collected by Chinese drones can be accessed by the Chinese government, providing a backdoor for spying on Americans.

The DOI has a fleet of 810 drones, all of which are either made in China or use Chinese parts. It uses these drones for collecting aerial data about endangered species, tracking wildfires, conducting search & rescue operations, and also—and perhaps most importantly—surveying critical infrastructure, like dams and bridges.

. . . we must ensure that the technology used for [drone] operations is such that it will not compromise our national security interests.

DOI statement on order 3379

We should note that although the DOI did not explicitly mention China in its order grounding the drones “a senior administration official said it was ‘without question’ aimed at drones made or assembled in China,” according to the New York Times.

Not All Federal Agencies Agree with a Blanket Ban on Chinese Drones

Despite the DOI’s recent actions, not all federal agencies agree with an all-out ban on Chinese drones.

Some say that a blanket ban of Chinese drones would be naive, and would not reflect the current reality of the drone landscape. And yet legislation that would prevent U.S. federal agencies from buying Chinese drones has already been proposed by members of congress (though not made into law).

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A recent New York Times article shares the Department of Agriculture’s concerns about the type of blanket ban this legislation proposes.

The DOA has reportedly said that such a ban would limit its ability to do important work and would also put a stop to drone-supported work conducted by the Forestry Service. The Office of Management and Budget has also expressed concerns about a ban on Chinese drones.

[Want to make sure your DJI drone isn’t sharing your data? Here’s what to do.]

Given that Chinese-owned DJI has a 70% market share of the drone industry, and that almost all drones made anywhere rely in some way or another on Chinese-made parts, a complete ban could effectively mean that no drones can be used at all for government work—a reality reflected by the fact that the DOI cannot currently use any of its 810 drones.

For its part, DJI claims that its the victim of a political attack, motivated not by valid national security concerns but by protectionist desires to help the U.S. drone industry gain ground.

[The DOI’s] decision makes clear that the U.S. government’s concerns about DJI drones, which make up a small portion of the DOI fleet, have little to do with security and are instead part of a politically motivated agenda to reduce market competition and support domestically produced drone technology, regardless of its merits.

– Michael Oldenburg, spokesperson for DJI

And yet, despite these arguments, privacy concerns continue to linger around Chinese-manufactured drones and drone parts.

A Brief History of DJI Spying Concerns

Concerns about DJI secretly collecting and sharing user data are not new.

You might remember that DJI-related privacy concerns first hit the news when the Army issued a blanket ban on all DJI drones in 2017, ordering that all Chinese-made drones currently in use be destroyed immediately.

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So much has happened since the Army issued its ban that it can be hard to remember all the different parts of the DJI privacy saga, so we created this timeline of major events:

  • August, 2017. U.S. Army issues a blanket ban on all DJI drones based on allegations that DJI’s drones were secretly configured to collect and send user data back to DJI.
  • October, 2017. DJI responds by releasing Local Data Mode, which allows pilots to fly without any data being shared.
  • November, 2017. Internal memo is leaked from the Department of Homeland security saying that DJI is using its drones to collect sensitive information in the U.S. and share it with the Chinese government.
  • April, 2018. DJI hires San Francisco-based Kivu Consulting, Inc. to review its privacy practices. The resulting report absolves DJI of malicious or negligent data sharing practices but privacy concerns linger.
  • May, 2019. The Department of Homeland Security issues an advisory in which it warn companies that their data may be at risk if they use drones made in China.
  • June, 2019. DJI issues Government Edition, a line of drones made to ensure complete privacy of data, including photos, video, and locational data. At the same time, DJI announces that it will begin making drones within the U.S. and sends an open letter to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation and the Senate Subcommittee on Security.
  • January, 2020. The Department of the Interior grounds all its drones due to concerns that Chinese parts in them could be used for spying. DJI publishes a statement calling the ban “politically motivated” the day it is announced.

What do you think—should there be a blanket ban on Chinese drones and Chinese drone parts? Chime in on this thread in the UAV Coach community forum to share your thoughts.

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