US FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr has warned that Chinese drone maker DJI “is collecting vast troves of sensitive data on Americans and US critical infrastructure, potentially operating as Huawei on wings”.
Shenzhen-based DJI accounts for more than 50 per cent of the US drone market.
In an FCC statement on Tuesday, Carr wanted the Chinese firm in the ‘Covered List’, which would prohibit federal US dollars from being used to purchase its equipment.
The FCC also has a proceeding underway examining whether to continue approving equipment from entities on the Covered List for use in the US, regardless of whether federal dollars are involved.
Huawei and four others – ZTE Corp, Hytera Communications Corp, Hangzhou Hikvision Digital Technology Co, and Zhejiang Dahua Technology Co – are already on the list based on a determination that they pose an unacceptable security risk.
“DJI drones and the surveillance technology on board these systems are collecting vast amounts of sensitive data – everything from high-resolution images of critical infrastructure to facial recognition technology and remote sensors that can measure an individual’s body temperature and heart rate,” Carr stated.
“Security researchers have also found that DJI’s software applications collect large quantities of personal information from the operator’s smartphone that could be exploited by Beijing. Indeed, one former Pentagon official stated that ‘we know that a lot of the information is sent back to China from’ DJI drones.”
“DJI’s collection of vast troves of sensitive data is especially troubling given that China’s National Intelligence Law grants the Chinese government the power to compel DJI to assist it in espionage activities. In fact, the Commerce Department placed DJI on its Entity List last year, citing DJI’s role in Communist China’s surveillance and abuse of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Add to this information, the widespread use of DJI drones by various state and local public safety and law enforcement agencies as well as news reports that the US Secret Service and FBI recently bought DJI drones, and the need for quick action on the potential national security threat is clear.”
“After all, the evidence against DJI has been mounting for years, and various components of the US government have taken a range of independent actions – including grounding fleets of DJI drones based on security concerns. Yet a consistent and comprehensive approach to addressing DJI’s potential threats is not in place. That is why the FCC should take the necessary steps to consider adding DJI to our Covered List. We do not need an airborne version of Huawei. As part of the FCC’s review – and in consultation with national security agencies – we should also consider whether there are additional entities that warrant closer scrutiny by the FCC.”
In his remarks calling for action, Carr noted that since 2017, US intelligence services have warned that the DJI poses a security threat due to the level of sensitive information it collects and the risk of that data being accessed by Chinese state actors.
Carr pointed to the following evidence:
In 2017, an Intelligence Bulletin from a DHS field office stated that DJI is likely providing sensitive US infrastructure and law enforcement data to the Chinese government.
In 2019, the Department of Homeland Security issued an alert regarding Chinese-made drones like DJI, stating that “(t)he 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”.
In 2019, in passing the FY 2020 NDAA, Congress broadly prohibited the Department of Defense from purchasing Chinese-made drones, including DJI drones, based on national security concerns.
In January 2020, the Secretary of the US Department of the Interior issued an order that largely grounded the Department’s fleet of drones, most notably DJI drones, based on concerns about cybersecurity and safeguarding access to sensitive data and information.
In October 2020, DOJ’s Office of Justice Programmes barred the use of their funds for drones made by a “Covered foreign entity, determined or designated, within the Department of Justice, to be subject to or vulnerable to extrajudicial direction from a foreign government”, including DJI.
In December 2020, the Department of Commerce added DJI to its “Entity List,” for having “enabled wide-scale human rights abuses within China through abusive genetic collection and analysis or high-technology surveillance, and/or facilitated the export of items by China that aid repressive regimes around the world, contrary to US foreign policy interests”.
In January 2021, President Donald Trump issued an Executive Order detailing the risks of Chinese-made drones, including DJI, and stated the US policy “to prevent the use of taxpayer dollars to procure UAS that present unacceptable risks and are manufactured by, or contain software or critical electronic components from, foreign adversaries, and to encourage the use of domestically produced UAS”.
In July 2021, DOD stated that it remains convinced DJI systems “pose potential threats to national security,” and DJI drones are still barred from use by it.
Carr, 42, a Republican lawyer, has led efforts to crack down on the threats posed by communist China. Axios described him as “the FCC’s 5G crusader”, for leading FCC’s work to modernise its infrastructure rules and accelerate the buildout of high-speed networks.
In 2018, Carr urged removal of insecure network gear from our communications networks, a process that is now underway. In 2019, he called for FCC to conduct a top-to-bottom review of every telecom carrier with ties to communist China. The FCC has now launched proceedings to revoke the authorisations of several carriers.
Earlier this year, he proposed that FCC use its equipment authorisation process to safeguard against security threats. The FCC initiated a proceeding to accomplish that in June. Tuesday’s call for action marks another step in his efforts to address the threats posed by communist China.
The DJI, the world’s biggest in consumer drones, is the creation of Frank Wang, now the world’s first drone billionaire. He founded DJI in 2006 and ran it out of his dorm room at Hong Kong University of Science & Technology. Estimates of DJL sales are upwards of $2 billion. In 2018, it raised money at an estimated valuation of $15 billion and is best known for its Phantom Drones, which retail for around $1,000. Forbes estimates that Wang owns about 40 percent of the company.
FCC has a sanctioned strength of five commissioners. They are appointed by the US President. At present one position is vacant. One of them serves as Chairman. No more than three commissioners may be members of the same political party. None can have a financial interest in any FCC-related business. Commissioners are confirmed by the US Senate for five-year terms, except when filling an unexpired term. Carr’s term runs out in mid-2023. Commissioners may continue serving until the appointment of their replacements. However, they may not serve beyond the end of the next session of Congress following term expiration.
(Nikhila Natarajan tweets @byniknat)