House GOP Lawmakers Open Inquiry Into Law Enforcement Use of Chinese Drones

May 13, 2020 Updated: May 14, 2020

Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee opened an inquiry into the use of Chinese drones by U.S. state and local law enforcement, according to letters obtained by The Epoch Times.

A group of 14 lawmakers penned a pair of letters to the departments of Justice (pdf) and Homeland Security (pdf) on May 13 requesting information on the use of drones manufactured by Da Jiang Innovations (DJI), a Chinese company that accounts for almost 80 percent of the drones sold in the United States.

In recent weeks, some lawmakers raised alarms over the news of DJI loaning 100 drones to local law enforcement entities to assist in enforcing social distancing rules amid the pandemic of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus, commonly known as the novel coronavirus.

A number of federal agencies have already banned or warned against the use of DJI drones, over suspicion that the devices may send critical infrastructure and law enforcement data to the Chinese communist regime. As of March, nearly 1,100 state and local agencies had at least one DJI drone in their fleets, according to a study by Bard College, accounting for roughly 90 percent of all the drones in use by state and local authorities.

“Although federal law enforcement agencies have warned of potential information security concerns with DJI drones, it is not clear whether state and local law enforcement agencies are fully aware of these issues,” the letters from the GOP lawmakers state.

The committee’s Democratic chairman, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), didn’t immediately respond to a request by The Epoch Times for comment.

The lawmakers asked the Justice Department to provide a list of law enforcement agencies that have received funds to purchase DJI drones since Jan. 1, 2017. The letter also inquires about what policies and procedures are in place for such purchases and whether any restrictions and exemptions apply. The committee members’ goal is to learn whether concerns about DJI drones have come up in the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) working group on unmanned aerial systems.

The lawmakers also inquired whether the DOJ is monitoring the DJI pandemic drone loan program. DJI, the world’s largest consumer drone manufacturer, sent 100 of its drones to police, fire, and public safety organizations in 22 states. DJI’s consumer devices send flight logs, video, and audio to its servers by default, and a person operating them must navigate a series of options to turn off the data collection.

The deputy chief of police in Elizabeth, New Jersey, told The Epoch Times that the department is still using a pair of Mavic 2 drones loaned by DJI.

“The Police Department is aware of alleged data breaches and appropriate precautions are in place,” Giacomo Sacca, the deputy chief, said in a statement.

The U.S. Army, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Interior (DOI) have taken all steps to warn against or outright ban the use of DJI’s drones. Meanwhile, a recent investigative report by Bloomberg claims that DJI worked directly with the communist regime on questionable projects.

The Army appears to have used the devices at least until August 2017, when the drones were banned “due to increased awareness of cyber vulnerabilities associated with DJI products.” At the time, DJI drones were the most widely used off-the-shelf unmanned aerial device by the Army.

The Homeland Security Investigations office in Los Angeles warned in a bulletin (pdf) last year that “critical infrastructure and law enforcement entities using DJI systems are collecting sensitive intelligence that the Chinese government could use to conduct physical or cyber attacks against the United States and its population.”

The Department of Homeland Security released a similar notice in May 2019, warning that U.S. officials have “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,” Reuters reported.

The DOI formally grounded its drone fleet early this year, except for emergency missions. While the department’s notice didn’t single out DJI drones, a spokesman told The Wall Street Journal three months earlier that the grounding was in response to national security concerns around Chinese-made drones.

Prior to the grounding, the DOI had cleared DJI’s “government edition” drones in 2019 after an extensive study.

An official familiar with the grounding of the DOI fleet told The Epoch Times that Interior Secretary David Bernhardt grounded the fleet after receiving “classified briefings on security concerns related to our drone fleet.”

“Currently, we are working hand-in-hand with experts in the executive branch to coordinate a thorough assessment of certain DOI drones and scanning for any potential national security threats,” the official said.

In addition to the concerns voiced by federal agencies, DJI’s servers were successfully accessed by cybersecurity bounty hunters in late 2017. One hunter documented (pdf) accessing DJI data collected from the U.S. military, copies of passports and driver’s licenses, and other sensitive information.

After reportedly starting DJI from his dorm room, the company’s founder, Frank Wang, led the firm to global dominance of the consumer drone market. DJI now holds 70 percent of the market, according to a company estimate.

Large companies in China can’t exist independently of the CCP, which has legal, or virtually unconstrained access, to any company resource. DJI’s privacy policy about this point is particularly vague, stating that the company can share user data “to comply with applicable laws.”

DJI has previously said the claims that it “routinely” shares data with authorities in China are “false.” That statement notably avoids addressing whether DJI has shared data with Chinese authorities on a non-routine basis.

“From the start of the COVID-19 crisis, DJI has helped local public safety officials keep their communities safe at a distance,” a company spokesman said in an emailed statement to The Epoch Times.

“This means equipping local police and fire departments with DJI technology so they can assist in social distancing efforts and get supplies where they are needed without exposing first responders unnecessarily. With more front-line workers testing positive for COVID-19, our focus is giving our public safety professionals every tool possible to fight the virus and protect citizens. That is our goal.

“False claims that our drones spy on people or send data to China actually risk interfering with public safety efforts to protect people and communities.”

DJI publicly stated in a since-removed press release in 2017 that it’s cooperating with the public security bureau of Xinjiang, which is known for persecuting Uyghur Muslims and Falun Gong practitioners.

DJI’s capabilities related to the detection and tracing of drones are startling. The company currently markets a system called AeroScope, which “is able to identify the vast majority of popular drones on the market today by monitoring and analyzing their electronic signals to gain critical information.”

According to Bloomberg, Wang had created a system similar to AeroScope for the communist regime in China. The system reportedly allows authorities to trace any drone to its owner’s cellphone.

DJI didn’t immediately respond to a request by The Epoch Times for comment on the Bloomberg report.

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