Chinese-Made Drones in U.S. Are Spying on Us. Congress Must Put an End to This.

COMMENTARY Technology

Chinese-Made Drones in U.S. Are Spying on Us. Congress Must Put an End to This.

Apr 16th, 2021 3 min read

Commentary By

John Venable

Senior Research Fellow for Defense Policy

Charlotte Santomero

Spring 2021 Member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation

Aerial drones for industrial use are displayed at the 8th China (Shanghai) International Technology Import and Export Fair in Shanghai, China, April 16, 2021. Costfoto / Barcroft Media / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

In recent years, the number and type of drones flown by the government, industry, and the general populace have exploded.

Images and data collected by well-meaning Americans can then be transmitted unknowingly to hostile entities and governments.

That means that Chinese technology is anything but secure, and its employment by government agencies presents a risk to our national security.

It’s a basic concept of national security: Don’t invite a hostile nation to imbed its gifts into the innermost sanctums of your society.

That was true long before the Trojans wheeled the Greek’s gift of a horse into the city of Troy some 3,000 years ago, and it is no less true today. Still, like so many lessons from history, we are learning it again with Chinese drones.

Unmanned aircraft systems, better known simply as “drones,” are used much more commonly throughout the U.S. than one might expect, and are now essential assets for the military, law enforcement, emergency services, infrastructure, and especially agriculture.

In the last few days of the Trump administration, the president signed an executive order designed to prevent U.S. taxpayer dollars from being used to procure drone technology that is produced by foreign adversaries. The president was essentially saying, “Don’t give our enemies the keys to our kingdom, and if you already have, take them back.”

And yet, the Biden administration may disregard the magnitude of this threat and move to revoke that executive order and its commonsense approach to security.

In recent years, the number and type of drones flown by the government, industry, and the general populace have exploded, growing from 2.5 million to 7 million in just the last five years.

When combined with the accompanying advances in camera and other sensor technology, the amount of information drones can amass has grown exponentially. These systems can now collect and transmit terabytes of data, including images of people, buildings, and critical infrastructure that are caught in those frames, tagging the locations of everything they capture with the incredible fidelity of GPS.

The issue lies not so much in the information the drones collect, but in the fact that images and data collected by well-meaning Americans can then be transmitted unknowingly to hostile entities and governments. This introduces a large and largely unknown security risk.

The vast majority of drones owned and operated in the United States are manufactured by Chinese corporations, the largest of which is Da-Jiang Innovations, or DJI, as it is more commonly known in North America. Many of those drones are being employed by federal, state, and local agencies and departments in and around some of the most critical activities and infrastructure we possess.

It is important to remember that all companies in China are required by law to give the Chinese Communist Party access to all of their information, despite any disingenuous protests to the contrary. That means that Chinese technology is anything but secure, and its employment by government agencies presents a risk to our national security.

One ominous example is DJI’s gift of 100 Chinese-made drones to law enforcement and emergency service agencies throughout the U.S. to monitor social distancing and public interactions during the COVID-19 outbreak. This overtly generous gift placed those drones in our heartland, and they are now being employed in ways that are eerily similar to the way they are flown in the totalitarian state of China—all the while collecting terabytes of images and data.

And there is little question where the data and images collected by those DJI drones and their supporting systems are going.

Last year, two different cybersecurity firms, one American and one French, reverse-engineered DJI applications. Both firms found that the apps collected an individual’s private information without their permission or knowledge and transmitted that data back to the developers in China.

The connective tissue between those Chinese developers and the Chinese Communist Party, coupled with that government’s duplicity, present an insidious threat—one that elements of our government have thus far received with open arms.  

This goes beyond the concept of a Trojan horse in that the Chinese have wooed U.S. government entities into doing their collection for them. It is the equivalent of banks asking known thieves to design and build their vaults. For the sake of the security and continued prosperity of this nation, the link must be broken.

President Joe Biden should not just endorse the Trump administration’s executive order on drones, but should also encourage Congress to include its provisions of that order in the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act. This is wake-up call for America, and we can’t afford to miss it.

This piece originally appeared in The Daily Signal.