Drone aircraft used to be prohibitively expensive, but now you can buy a camera-equipped drone that talks to your smartphone for under $100. The US Department of Homeland Security has issued an alert that drones manufactured by Chinese firms might have become a little too accessible. The DHS says much of the data collected by these drones ends up on servers in mainland China where the Chinese government can access it.
The agency doesn’t mention any Chinese drone makers by name, but the target is crystal clear. Shenzhen-based DJI makes approximately 80 percent of the drones currently operating in the US and Canada. These range from consumer units that cost a few hundred dollars (the popular Spark and Mavic lines) up to advanced enterprise-oriented models that can cost several thousand dollars. Some police forces have even been using DJI hardware like the Matrice.
In 2017, the US Army ended its use of DJI drone aircraft. At the time, the Army alleged that the company shared infrastructure information with the Chinese government. The DHS advisory is the clearest sign yet that the government is taking aim at DJI because of its near-monopoly in ready-to-fly drones. It notes that the Chinese government requires its citizens to support national security activities, and that could include providing flight data from drones used in the US.
The DHS suggests that consumers be careful when purchasing a Chinese-made drone. Buyers should consider turning off the drone’s internet access and removing storage cards from the devices when not in use.
This alert follows a pair of government actions targeting large Chinese companies. Last week, an executive order barred US telecommunication firms from using equipment made by Chinese companies, a policy that would hit Chinese mega-corporation Huawei hard. The Commerce Department went a step further several days later by adding Huawei to its “Entities List,” which blocks US companies from providing technology to Huawei except under specific circumstances.
The actions against Huawei have thrown the company into turmoil with Google withdrawing support for Android. DJI could be the next target as China and the US continue sparring in the ongoing trade war. For its part, DJI says it gives users complete control over how their data is stored, transmitted, and stored. It also provides drones that do not transmit data over the internet for use by government agencies and industries with sensitive data.
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