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US DOI abruptly grounds all China-made drones over spying concerns

DJI Inspire 2 drone. (Sven Teschke/Wikimedia Commons)
October 31, 2019

Drones have helped the Department of the Interior in various tasks, like fighting forest fires, surveying land, monitoring endangered species and inspecting infrastructure; now the department worries those drones present a risk of Chinese spying.

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt issued the decision on Wednesday to ground the Interior Department’s survey drone fleet, the Wall Street Journal reported. The entirety of the department’s fleet of more than 800 drones either contain Chinese components or were manufactured entirely in China.

Officials at the Interior Department are reportedly concerned by the risk of their drones relaying sensitive information about U.S. infrastructure to the Chinese government, or presenting some other vulnerability to hackers who could launch a cyber attack or cause other harm with the drones.

With some exceptions, the drones will not be used until the department conducts a full review of potential security risks.

According to department statement provided to the New York Times, the ban on drone usage does not apply to drones “currently being utilized for emergency purposes, such as fighting wildfires, search and rescue, and dealing with natural disasters that may threaten life or property.”

The Interior Department reportedly used one of the largest drone fleets in the U.S. federal government.

The news of the departments grounded drone fleet follows legislation introduced to the Senate in September, seeking to bar the purchase of Chinese manufactured drones and drone parts, as well as other countries deemed to present a national security risk to the U.S.

In 2017, the Department of Homeland Security raised concerns one Chinese drone manufacturer, DJI, was targeting government and private business entities close to the national security sector in order to steal sensitive information.

DJI, which is one of China’s largest drone manufacturers, disputed those security concerns and said users could freely disable features designed to transmit data back to the manufacturer. The Chinese manufacturer said users could also shut off a feature that connects the drone to the internet.

“We have worked with the Department of Interior to create a safe and secure drone solution that meets their rigorous requirements, which was developed over the course of 15 months with DOI officials, independent cybersecurity professionals, and experts at NASA,” the company said in a statement Wednesday.

DJI also said the Chinese government has not sought their stored drone data and reportedly offered to assist in the new review of Interior Department drones.

By contrast, U.S. security officials and lawmakers have warned of close ties between China’s government and its business sector.

National security officials have raised concern at other Chinese technology companies, such as Huawei. In an April report, the CIA claimed Huawei received funding from the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, China’s National Security Commission and at least one Chinese intelligence agency.

Huawei’s surveillance capabilities have already reportedly helped an African government spy on political dissidents.

On Thursday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said U.S. restrictions on Chinese technology products represented a “Cold War mentality.”