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FBI, Secret Service bought 27 Chinese drones deemed nat’l security risk over China spying

DJI Phantom 4Pro (A.Savin/WikiCommons)
September 22, 2021

The U.S. Secret Service and the FBI have both purchased drones from a Chinese manufacturer that the Department of Homeland Security previously warned could be “providing U.S. critical infrastructure and law enforcement data to the Chinese government.”

According to procurement records obtained by Axios and first reported on Tuesday, the U.S. Secret Service bought eight new DJI drones in July 2021. Further purchase records show the FBI also procured 19 of the Chinese-made DJI drones.

In a solicitation report associated with its DJI drone procurement, the Secret Service said the 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.”

In a solicitation statement associated with its drone procurement, the FBI said DJI’s Phantom 4 Pro drone model is “the only commercially available consumer [drone] to combine all [its required] capabilities at an acceptable cost.” The FBI statement also describes some of the features of the drone, such as GPS guidance and collision avoidance measures which it said will provide an “ease of use” for new drone operators.

Concerns about the Shenzhen-based drone manufacturer have persisted for years. In the summer of 2017, the Department of Homeland Security assessed with a “moderate confidence” that DJI drones were relaying critical infrastructure and law enforcement data back to the Chinese government.

In October 2019, the Department of Interior abruptly suspended its entire fleet of drones, including DJI drones, over spying concerns.

“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,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), the Vice Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told Axios.

In a statement to Axios, DJI spokesman Adam Lisberg disputed all allegations that the Chinese company’s data is not secure or that it has been passed along to Chinese authorities.

On July 20, the FBI submitted its purchase for 19 drones. Three days after the FBI’s drone purchase, on July 23, the Department of Defense released a statement saying that systems developed by DJI “pose potential threats to national security.”

The DOD has banned the purchase of all commercial off-the-shelf drones, regardless of manufacturer, with an exception for purchases intended to study countermeasures to such drones.

On July 26, three days after the DOD’s warning statement, the Secret Service went forward with its own drone purchase.

While efforts to develop countermeasures against commercial off-the-shelf drones like those built by DJI may be a reason to purchase the drones despite security concerns, neither the Secret Service nor FBI indicated that was the intended purpose of their recent drone purchases.

Klon Kitchen, a defense and cybersecurity expert at the American Enterprise Institute, pushed back on the FBI’s reasoning that DJI had the only affordable options for a drone that would fit their needs.

If the federal government is purchasing DJI drones for counter-drone or other security research, fine,” Kitchen said. “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?”

The Secret Service and the FBI both declined an Axios request for comment on their new drone purchases.