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DJI's donations of drones to local agencies raise questions from lawmakers

DJI’s donations of drones to local agencies raise questions from lawmakers

DJI’s donations of 100 drones to local agencies as part of their recently launched US Disaster Relief Program, raises questions from lawmakers.

DJI’s donations of drones raise questions from lawmakers

One month ago, DJI committed 100 drones to 40 police, fire, and public safety organizations in 21 states as part of the US Disaster Relief Program to help fight COVID-19.

How these drones are now being used by the public safety agencies is what Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee demand to know from the Department of Homeland Security.

Bloomberg reports that ‘several federal agencies have expressed concerns that the devices could be used for spying in the U.S. A claim that drone maker DJI has been denying for the last couple of years. See Brendan Schulman’s interview for more information on this.

The lawmakers wrote in a letter addressed to Katharine Sullivan, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General of the Department of Justice that:

In response to the coronavirus epidemic, DJI has donated drones to state and local law enforcement entities in the United States to purportedly assist with social distancing enforcement. 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.

Ohio Representative Jim Jordan, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, and 13 other lawmakers signed the letter, in which they specifically ask for the following information:

1. A list of all state, local, territorial, and tribal law enforcement agencies receiving federal grant funding to purchase or operate DJI drones covering the period from January 1, 2017, to the present;

2. Please explain what policies and procedures grant recipients must have in place to receive federal support to purchase or operate DJI drones, including any restrictions and exemptions that apply;

3. Please explain whether any concerns about DJI drones have arisen during Department- wide UAS working group activities since January 1, 2017; and

4. Please explain whether the Department is monitoring DJI’s recent provision of drones to state and local law enforcement agencies during the coronavirus pandemic and what actions, if any, the Department is taking in response.

The information needs to be provided as soon as possible but no later than 5:00 p.m. on May 27th, 2020.

Over the last few years, a number of federal agencies have expressed concerns about DJI drones possibly spying on U.S. citizens. A claim that DJI has always strongly denied. The drone maker at one point hired the consultancy firm Kivu to investigate whether DJI drones could in fact send sensitive data back to China and thus be used as spying devices. The consultancy firm did not find any proof that DJI drones were used in this way.

Earlier this year the Department of the Interior stopped using DJI drones for all non-emergency flights after having worked for 15 months with the drone maker to develop a special ‘Government Edition’ for their drones, which was validated by NASA. The ‘Government Edition’ prevented any possibility of data being sent back to China and met the specification of the DoI. Again, See DJI’ Brendan Schulman’s interview for more background on this.

In a statement, DJI said that the purpose of the donations of drones to local agencies was to protect first responders and citizens. The drone maker added that:

“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.”

In a letter to the public safety agencies, that received the free drones, DJI said that their drones could be safely used and that the unmanned aircraft met security standards for critical infrastructure. In that letter from April 21st, DJI also said that the data security concerns raised around their drones were ‘clearly motivated by political sentiment.

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Haye Kesteloo

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  • All of these “concerns” expressed by decidedly partisan politicians have been speculative. None of these allegations we have heard have been backed up by proof that any sensitive data whatsoever has ever been transmitted to ANY hostile foreign interests either for military or economic espionage. The DOD, DOT and others have access to most probing of signal analytic systems known to man. If evidence exists of Chinese “spying” it would not be the stuff of rumor and conspiracy theory, it would be front page news

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