Can you believe our federal gov uses Chinese Drones? Me? Err...
Ok, it's time for me to come clean. I'm actually a foreign spy operating a small surveillance cell for the Chinese Gov. Shown below is my recent footage of underground US Army weapons cash in San Juan Mountains.
Photo taken with DJI Mavic 3 Cine drone, Crested Butte, Oct 2022
The U.S. Government Keeps Buying Chinese Drones
Some departments have outlawed their use, but others persist despite the national security risk.
By Lars Erik Schönander
Nov. 30, 2022 6:08 pm ET
In one of the latest moves in the U.S.-China great-power competition, the Defense Department revealed in October that DJI, a Chinese drone company, is on its “Chinese military companies” list, which tracks companies working with the People’s Liberation Army. This reflects a growing, and justified, concern with the company—the largest commercial drone manufacturer in the world—and its close ties to the Chinese Communist Party.
As Brendan Carr, a commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission, has warned, “DJI drones and the surveillance technology on board these systems are collecting vast amounts of sensitive data—everything from high-resolution images of critical infrastructure to facial recognition technology and remote sensors that can measure an individual’s body temperature and heart rate.” The surveillance potential of DJI drones isn’t hypothetical; the Treasury Department has alleged that the Chinese Communist Party is using them to monitor Uyghurs trapped in Chinese concentration camps. If China can use these drones to spy on its own people, it can also use them to spy on Americans.
Compounding DJI drones’ risk is their capacity for “geofencing.” Using GPS and satellite data, DJI can decide whether one of its drones will function in a given area, allowing the company to down an entire fleet if it chooses. The ability to deactivate government-owned drones shouldn’t be entrusted to any foreign entity—least of all one under the thumb of the Communist Party.
The Defense Department’s announcement continues steps by the federal government in recent years to counter DJI’s surveillance and cybersecurity risks. Among other efforts, the Army banned DJI drone use in 2017 because of cybersecurity concerns, and in 2020 the Interior Department grounded its DJI drones for the same reason. Last year, in response to DJI’s surveillance of Uyghurs, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control added DJI to its list of companies in the Chinese military-industrial complex, prohibiting Americans from buying or selling publicly traded securities tied to the company.
But other federal agencies haven’t been as vigilant. According to newly revealed data from a Freedom of Information Act request that I submitted, DJI drones make up roughly two-thirds of the drone fleet run by the Agricultural Research Service, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, for research and survey work. The service has purchased DJI drones as recently as late 2020. If these drones shouldn’t be used by the U.S. military or on federal lands, why should U.S. farmland be any different?
This lapse in security isn’t unique. An open contract on SAM.gov, a General Services Administration database, shows that the U.S. Secret Service bought DJI drones earlier this year. Despite the Interior Department’s efforts to decouple from DJI, the majority of its drone flights last year were still performed by the company’s drones. And an untold number of DJI products are used by local police forces and government agencies, as well as government contractors across the country.
Why is the government continuing to purchase and use drones that pose a national-security risk? One factor is a successful lobbying push earlier this year. A bipartisan bill to ban federal agencies’ procurement of drones from hostile foreign countries, including China, was introduced but failed to be added to the National Defense Authorization Act. Rep. Mike Gallagher (R., Wis.), who sponsored the bill, lamented: “There is bipartisan recognition that Congress needs to act to mitigate threats posed by DJI drones, but these efforts have been undermined by lobbyists who’d rather sell out the country than lose a lucrative contract.”
Congress needs to get serious about this issue. It should pass a law requiring all agencies to follow the Defense Department’s guidelines for procuring drones that are known to be safe. The American Security Drone Act of 2021, which would prohibit federal funds from being used to buy drones manufactured in China, should be reintroduced and given priority in the next Congress.
States can also take action. Last year the Florida Legislature restricted state agencies’ purchases of drones to manufacturers meeting specific security standards. Other states should follow suit.
All federal agencies should undergo an inspection to reveal the size and composition of their drone fleets. At the moment, there is no requirement for agencies to disclose the number and types of drones they are buying. Federal agencies shouldn’t be allowed to buy products from companies that threaten America’s security.
Mr. Schönander is a policy technologist at Lincoln Network, a tech policy think tank.