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China wins over U.S. police agencies with cheap drones. Here’s how we can fight back

Police car lights (Dreamstime/TNS)

An ancient Chinese essay called “The Thirty-Six Stratagems” explains how to defeat a powerful enemy without them knowing they are at war. Beijing has dusted off that document and implemented it with devastating effect.

Beijing has been raiding U.S. companies, universities, laboratories and military agencies for decades, bypassing years and billions of dollars of research to use our own innovations against us. The Chinese government plunders crop enhancements, weapons systems, cancer research, gas pipeline data, mRNA research and satellite communication protocols. Recent reports say that China has embedded malware in our military infrastructure.

Additionally, Beijing controls the U.S. public safety market for uncrewed aircraft systems, or drones. About 85% of drones used by U.S. police and sheriffs come from China, most from a company called DJI, which the U.S. Department of Defense identified as a Chinese military company in October 2022.

Drones often carry high-tech collection payloads, enabling surveillance and maybe even sabotage. Capabilities include imagery gathering, signals collection and other tools of espionage.

Police fly DJI drones over our cities, exposing critical infrastructure such as electrical substations, hospitals, bridges, ports, electrical substations and reservoirs to their sensing and mapping capabilities. They do so because they are cheap — subsidized by Beijing — and help understaffed agencies serve the public while reducing officer injuries. U.S. and Western drone makers can’t compete, and police have become fiercely loyal to Chinese drones.

Don’t be fooled. This reliance is a stratagem. An investigation by The Washington Post and video security company IPVM revealed that, despite the drone maker’s claims to the contrary, DJI is indeed underwritten by Beijing.

Several federal agencies have limited or prohibited the use of Chinese drones. In July, the Senate unanimously adopted the American Security Drone Act, which would prohibit federal agencies from buying insecure Chinese drones. Days later, the House passed the similar Unmanned Aerial Security Act.

Here in Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott released an admirable “Model Security Plan for Prohibited Technologies” in January to address DJI drones. But the plan is a model, not a mandate, and while Texas is moving in the right direction, some of our own agencies are clinging to Chinese drones.

The situation is even more dire here in Texas because we share close to 2,000 miles of border with Mexico. Chinese-controlled drones can spot weaknesses in our homeland defense and notify Beijing. China may not have plans to invade the United States, but ceding our border surveillance to them plays into their hands.

We in no way advocate banning all drones for law enforcement — just those from hostile nations. Some activists have expressed privacy concerns about public drones. But in our experience agencies abide by the “Five C’s” of responsible drone use, as developed by the nonprofit safety group Drone Responders: community engagement and transparency, civil liberties and privacy protection, common operating procedures, clear oversight and accountability, and cybersecurity.

Texas should consider following Florida, where Chinese drones are banned for government agencies. Its legislature recently made $25 million available in grants for public safety agencies to replace their technology with U.S. or Western-made drones.

Some law enforcement officials contend the risk is overblown. It isn’t.

We must work with our well-intentioned law enforcement officers to get them to understand the ramifications of Chinese technology. We must likewise fund the tools that they need during a time of slashed police budgets, record-high retirements, record-low recruitment and rapidly improving drone technology.

We don’t need 36 stratagems. One is enough: Texas and federal leaders should fund law enforcement drone development efforts by companies in the U.S. and friendly nations.


© 2023 Fort Worth Star-Telegram

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