If our federal authorities are going to construct a prison-worthy surveillance state, can they at least buy American while they do it?
According to a report from Axios, federal law enforcement agencies — including the FBI and the Secret Service — have purchased drones from a Chinese company that was flagged by the Department of Defense as a national security threat.
The drones were purchased from Da Jiang Innovations, a company based in Shenzhen, China, that’s the biggest consumer drone manufacturer in the world.
“DJI makes an array of consumer products that are tremendously popular, including the Phantom and Mavic drone series, as well as the Osmo image-stabilization handle,” Axios reported.
“While the products are used for personal and commercial purposes, they also require the user to download proprietary DJI software, and to fly using mapping databases that have the potential to be monitored remotely.”
The FBI bought 19 of the drones for nearly $60,000 on July 20 and on July 26, the Secret Service purchased eight of the drones for over $12,000, according to records included in the Axios account. And yet, on July 23, the Pentagon warned in a news release that DJI’s drones “pose potential threats to national security.”
“Existing DOD policy and practices associated with the use of these systems by U.S. government entities and forces working with U.S. military services remain unchanged contrary to any written reports not approved for release by the DOD,” a release read.
“A recent report indicated that certain models of DJI systems had been found to be approved for procurement and operations for US government departments and agencies. This report was inaccurate and uncoordinated, and its unauthorized release is currently under review by the department.”
It was unclear what specific report the release was citing.
Should the federal government be using Chinese drones?
Just over four years ago, in an August 2017 report, as Axios noted, the Department of Homeland Security said it had “moderate confidence” that DJI drones were “providing U.S. critical infrastructure and law enforcement data to the Chinese government.”
In 2019, according to a Wall Street Journal report Axios cited, the Interior Department grounded its entire drone fleet over national security concerns related to Chinese manufacturing.
However, Axios reported that efforts to rid government agencies of the drones have stalled due to red tape, partially due to what the outlet called the “cost and complexity of replacing the systems.”
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,” according to purchasing records cited by Axios.
The FBI, in its purchasing records, said DJI’s Phantom 4 Pro was “the only commercially available consumer [drone] to combine all [its required] capabilities at an acceptable cost.”
A DJI representative told Axios there’s nothing to be concerned about and the company’s data won’t be transmitted to Chinese authorities.
“Claims that somehow DJI products are transmitting customer data back to China, or to DJI, or anywhere they’re not supposed to be … are just false,” DJI spokesman Adam Lisberg told the outlet. “No one has ever found a deliberate attempt to steal data, or any of the other fantasies promoted by some of our critics. It simply isn’t true.”
There’s also another potential explanation: That the FBI is securing the drones to study Chinese data mining and devise methods to counteract hacking attempts.
“If the federal government is purchasing DJI drones for counter-drone or other security research — fine,” American Enterprise Institute defense and cybersecurity expert Klon Kitchen told Axios via email.
“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?”
Florida GOP Sen. Marco Rubio was similarly unimpressed, according to Axios.
“DJI’s cyber security vulnerabilities are well documented,” Rubio wrote in an email to the outlet.
“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.”
And that’s the critical problem here — if these agencies aren’t using these drones as vehicles to study China’s data-collection efforts and hacking, this is handing Beijing the keys to our national security apparatus.
The fact that these off-the-shelf drones are in the fleets of our federal government is worrying enough as it is.
The Interior Department has already stopped using DJI drones, after all. If the FBI and Secret Service are using these drones, it’d be impossible to ensure complete sequestration between our systems and Chinese software.
We’d also be hard-pressed to stop them from seeing and hearing exactly what our federal law enforcement sees and hears — which is, by its very nature, sensitive data. No matter what role the unmanned vehicles are playing in either agency’s mission, I’m guessing it won’t just involve a dad playing with his son in the backyard, teaching him how to use the drone.
Say what you will about the necessity of our surveillance state and how invasive (or not) it is. If it’s going to exist and it’s going to be peeking into our backyards and up our streets with panopticon-like omniprescence, it would help if China isn’t seeing what the federal government sees, too.