Spies in the Sky: US Sends Warning to Chinese Drone Makers

A Department of Homeland Security report suggests Chinese-made drones may be used for spying.

The United States is increasing its pressure on China with an announcement suggesting that drones made by Chinese manufacturers may be used as spy tools.

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The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued a report saying warning that Chinese drones could be a ”potential risk to an organization’s information,” from products which “contain components that can compromise your data and share your information on a server accessed beyond the company itself.”

The warning affects companies such as includes industry leader, DJI who use company servers to gather information about their devices.

The DHS suggests that this information could be shared beyond the company, possibly with Chinese authorities.

Industry leader warned

While the report does not name any specific vendors it's clear that DJI is in the spotlight. The Shanghai-based company is responsible for almost 75% of global drone sales.

"The United States government has strong concerns about any technology product that takes American data into the territory of an authoritarian state that permits its intelligence services to have unfettered access to that data or otherwise abuses that access," the DHS report reads according to CNN.

Data might end up in the wrong hands

"Those concerns apply with equal force to certain Chinese-made (unmanned aircraft systems)-connected devices capable of collecting and transferring potentially revealing data about their operations and the individuals and entities operating them, as China imposes unusually stringent obligations on its citizens to support national intelligence activities.”

Observers say this last sentence is key. It essentially suggests that despite a company's best intentions or policies, the government can pressure them to share data without disclosing that to its customers.

DJI makes adjustments to reassure U.S customers

DJI may have seen something like this coming as they have recently made some changes to help protect their place in the U.S market. The company offers its customers the ability to operate their drones in ‘local data mode’, similar to a smartphone’s ‘aeroplane mode’.

Corporate customers can host their fleet management on their own IT systems or in an independent cloud rather than the company's data servers. In a statement, DJI assured customers that they now have “full and complete control over how their data is collected, stored, and transmitted. At DJI, safety is at the core of everything we do, and the security of our technology has been independently verified by the US government and leading US businesses.”

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DJI added that “for government and critical infrastructure customers that require additional assurances, we provide drones that do not transfer data to DJI or via the internet, and our customers can enable all the precautions DHS recommends. Every day, American businesses, first responders, and U.S. government agencies trust DJI drones to help save lives, promote worker safety, and support vital operations, and we take that responsibility very seriously.”

At the moment the DHS report is just a warning and no directives have been put in place, but such a move could have a heavy impact on commercial and governmental drone use in the US.

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