Sep 21, 2021 - World

Scoop: U.S. government buying risky Chinese drones

Illustration of a drone in an Uncle Sam top hat.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Federal law enforcement agencies are purchasing surveillance drones from a Chinese company the Pentagon has deemed a potential national security threat, Axios has learned.

Why it matters: Efforts to purge military and law enforcement agencies of potentially compromised Chinese technology have stalled amid bureaucratic red tape, and experts worry the federal government is needlessly exposing itself to snooping by malicious foreign actors.

Driving the news: The U.S. Secret Service is the latest to purchase surveillance drones from the Shenzhen-based company DJI, which dominates the commercial drone market in the U.S. and abroad.

  • The Secret Service bought eight DJI drones on July 26, according to procurement records obtained by the industry publication IPVM and shared with Axios.
  • That was three days after the Defense Department released a statement saying DJI products "pose potential threats to national security."
  • The FBI bought 19 DJI drones a few days earlier, records show.

The context: DJI makes an array of consumer products that are tremendously popular, including the Phantom and Mavic drone series, as well as the Osmo image-stabilization handle.

  • While the products are used for personal and commercial purposes, they also require the user to download proprietary DJI software, and to fly using mapping databases that have the potential to be monitored remotely.
  • Security concerns surrounding these products are longstanding, but DJI insists all such concerns are unfounded and based on misunderstanding or misrepresentation of its technology.

In 2017, the Department of Homeland Security — the Secret Service's parent agency — stated with "moderate confidence" that DJI was "providing U.S. critical infrastructure and law enforcement data to the Chinese government."

  • In 2019, the Interior Department, which also uses DJI products, grounded its entire non-emergency drone fleet because of concerns about Chinese government intrusions.
  • The Commerce Department added DJI to an export blacklist last year after Bloomberg reported it had supplied surveillance technology to Chinese security forces in Xinjiang, where millions of Uighur Muslims have been forced into internment camps.

What they're saying: "DJI’s cyber security vulnerabilities are well documented," Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who has pressed for greater scrutiny of contractors with Chinese government ties, told Axios.

  • "Given everything we know about the Chinese Communist Party and its companies, there is absolutely no excuse for any government agency to use DJI drones, or any other drones manufactured in countries identified as national security threats,” Rubio wrote in an emailed statement.
  • DJI spokesman Adam Lisberg disputed all allegations that the company's data in not secure or has been passed on to Chinese authorities.
  • "Claims that somehow DJI products are transmitting customer data back to China, or to DJI, or anywhere they're not supposed to be ... are just false," he told Axios. "No one has ever found a deliberate attempt to steal data, or any of the other fantasies promoted by some of our critics. It simply isn't true," he said.
  • The Secret Service declined to comment, citing operational security. The FBI also declined to comment.

The big picture: Lawmakers have cracked down in recent years on federal procurement of Chinese-made telecommunications and surveillance equipment. The most prominent case has involved telecom and consumer electronics giant Huawei Technologies.

  • Efforts to phase out Chinese-made technology have been slow due to bureaucratic constraints and the cost and complexity of replacing the systems.
  • DJI has implemented privacy and data protection measures as concerns have grown about potential Chinese access to U.S. government data.
  • In June, a DOD report cleared a pair of DJI drones for federal use, saying its analysis found “no malicious code or intent.” A Pentagon statement in July disavowed that finding, calling it "inaccurate" and its release "unauthorized."

Between the lines: Some experts who spoke with Axios noted the possibility that the agencies purchased DJI drones to study the devices or develop countermeasures.

  • A ban on Pentagon purchases of off-the-shelf Chinese drones provides exceptions for purchases designed to hone such countermeasures.
  • Language in the FBI and Secret Service contracts casts doubt on that explanation, though.
  • The Secret Service wrote its DJI drones will "supplement the agency’s existing fleet of small unmanned aircraft and improved [sic] mission support through the use of the most up-to-date equipment nd [sic] software."
  • The FBI said DJI's Phantom 4 Pro model was "the only commercially available consumer [drone] to combine all [its required] capabilities at an acceptable cost."

The bottom line: “If the federal government is purchasing DJI drones for counter-drone or other security research — fine," Klon Kitchen, a defense and cybersecurity expert at the American Enterprise Institute, told Axios in an email.

  • "But otherwise, in a world where you have plenty of alternatives — including some U.S. alternatives that are very good — why would federal agencies assume the inherent risks of Chinese-made systems?”

Editor's note: This story has been updated with comments from a DJI spokesperson.

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