Chinese manufacturers produced more than three in five drones used by local and state law enforcement, potentially exposing sensitive geographic and personal data to the Chinese government.
Chinese tech companies have sold or gifted drones to more than 970 law enforcement and first responder agencies across the country, presenting a massive national security risk, according to a new report by John Venable and Lora Ries, senior research fellows at the conservative Heritage Foundation. The authors of the report warn that the Chinese government can compel these companies to cough up sensitive data collected in the United States. The technology could help Beijing identify vulnerabilities in U.S. critical infrastructure and track down the location of American civic leaders.
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"There is no separation between Chinese firms and the government," Venable told the Washington Free Beacon. "When any one of these Chinese drone manufacturers take data back into their system … once it's back there, the government has direct access to it and they can get anything they want from the company."
The report comes amid heightened scrutiny of Chinese tech companies operating in the United States. On Monday, the Trump administration imposed additional restrictions on Huawei, a telecommunications giant accused of spying on behalf of Beijing—and banned suppliers from providing U.S.-made chips to the company. The White House also required Chinese company ByteDance to sell TikTok, a popular social media platform, to a U.S. company to prevent the Chinese government from accessing user data.
Drone use in the United States has increased exponentially in the last five years. This is especially the case for law enforcement officials and first responders who use drones' bird's-eye view to track down criminals or scout out forest fires. DJI, a Chinese company founded in 2006, has reaped the greatest benefit from this increase in demand, cornering 77 percent of the U.S. drone market. That success was fueled by regime subsidies that allowed DJI to undersell competitors, according to the report's authors.
The company continues to aggressively expand its market share, gifting 100 drones to nearly 50 agencies across the country in April, ostensibly to help local governments deal with the pandemic. DJI has also cooperated with the Chinese police state, however, providing drones to a Xinjiang government agency to monitor prisoners in a concentration camp for Muslim Uighurs.
The report found that DJI's phone applications present a national security risk for government users. According to two separate analyses cited by the report, the apps can access drone footage and images as well as data pertaining to the user's political and religious affiliation. Furthermore, the apps' terms of conditions allow the developers to share the information with the Chinese government, granting access to hundreds of hours of video footage from the United States to Beijing.
"The data those drones collect while flying over metropolitan areas would hold the precise location of critical infrastructure and sensitive information, such as the locations of civic leaders, their movements, and interactions," the report says. "If that data fell into the wrong hands—or was even collected by an entity with hostile intent—it could be used against individuals, officials, and agencies in ways that far exceed the benefits of those systems."
DJI has denied allegations that it is sharing information with the Chinese government.
While the federal government has taken steps to remove Chinese hardware from its drones fleet, the same cannot be said for local and state governments. The report urged the federal government to help prop up a domestic drone industry that could compete with Chinese drones.
"If private individuals or private companies still want to buy [DJI drones], at least they do so with knowledge of its dangers," Ries, one of the report's authors, said. "But as far as the federal government and state and local government uses the drones, so long as that data is being transferred to the CCP, the risk seems too high for government functions and government operations."