On Thursday, the Justice Department’s Office of Justice Programs (OJP) announced the issuance of new guidance that bans the use of agency grants to purchase foreign-made drones and other unmanned aerial systems from foreign groups deemed threats.
Updated with response from DJI.
Certain foreign-made drones cannot be bought with DOJ grant funds
No funds awarded or made available by OJP, through a contract, grant, cooperative agreement, or otherwise, to a state, local, tribal, or territorial government (including via subcontract or subaward, at any tier) may be used to purchase, use, or operate any unmanned aircraft system that is manufactured or assembled by a covered foreign entity.
And the DOJ defines a covered foreign entity as follows:
“Covered foreign entity” means any entity that is determined or designated, within the Department of Justice, to be subject to or vulnerable to extrajudicial direction from a foreign government.
While issued on Monday, the guidance was only made public on Thursday. The new DOJ policy aims to increase the security of drones by requiring that OJP loan applicants can mitigate any ‘cybersecurity and privacy risks posed by these systems and that the applicant has a plan to address any civil liberties-related complaints that could arise’, according to The Hill.
Does foreign-made drones really mean DJI drones?
The new DOJ policy does not single out any specific country, but it is not hard to imagine that the guidance applies to Chinese-made drones.
The policy refers to unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) that are “manufactured or assembled by a covered foreign entity.” It does not specifically mention drones that are made in the United States, but that still contain Chinese-made parts as do all the so-called ‘Blue sUAS’ do.
The House-passed 2021 National Defense Authorization Act contains a provision that would ban the federal government from purchasing certain foreign-made drones, including UAS from China, because of national security concerns.
Over the last few years, the world’s largest and also Chinese drone maker, DJI has come under increased scrutiny from U.S. lawmakers and federal government agencies. DJI has always maintained that they do not share any information with the Chinese government, and that drone users can decide if they want to share any information from their UAS with DJI. The company went as far as to create a Local Data Mode on some of its drones to prevent any information from being shared online. DJI developed in partnership with the U.S. Department of the Interior a special ‘Government Edition’ for select DJI drones that provides even more data security.
“We take seriously concerns about the use of foreign-made UAS and the potential for related data compromise,” Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen said in a statement Thursday, according to The Hill. “It is paramount that funding recipients take effective measures to safeguard sensitive information and the public’s privacy and civil liberties while operating these systems in a safe and secure manner.”
The new policy from the Justice Department was released the same week Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt issued separate guidance allowing the department to buy ‘American-made, but still containing Chinese-made parts’ drones, or so-called Blue sUAS, as defined by an initiative of the Department of Defense.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of the Interior temporarily grounded its entire fleet of 810 3DR Solo unmanned aircraft and various DJI drones from use in non-emergency operations because of cybersecurity concerns.
“While drones are important to critical Interior missions, the Department needed to ensure the technology used for these operations is such that it would not compromise our national security interests,” Interior Department press secretary Ben Goldey wrote in an email to reporters this week.
The data security concerns related to Chinese-made drones are part of a larger effort by the current administration against China and Chinese companies. Previously, Huawei and TikTok have come under intense scrutiny.
An example of a foreign-made drone that helped save a duck hunter’s life in Minnesota earlier this week.
DJI has pushed back against the allegations and also responded to the new guidance from the Department of the Interior and pointed out that the Blue sUAS are three to five times more expensive than comparable DJI UAS.
“The new DOI guidance finally acknowledges that the grounding of its drone fleet was never about national security, but rather thinly-veiled economic protectionism. Five manufacturers were just handed an unfair advantage in the marketplace, as they can build their drones with Chinese parts while other companies cannot. The Blue Drone companies also charge three to five times more than a comparable DJI platform, meaning U.S. taxpayers are footing the bill for expensive military-grade drone technology from defense contractors for non-military activity such as prescribed burns, wildlife conservation and geological surveying.”
In September, the Alliance for Drone Innovation, which also represents DJI sent a letter to the leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services committees pointing out that banning federal use of drones from certain companies could be “detrimental to the U.S. drone industry.”
“Manufacturing a drone simply cannot be done today without parts and knowledge from all over the world, and a country-based ban would hurt the Americans who build drones as well as the Americans who use them for recreation, business, conservation, and even saving lives,” the alliance wrote.
Official response from DJI on DOJ policy on foreign-made drones
“This Justice Department order will deprive hundreds of public safety agencies of a lifesaving tool and put our communities’ emergency workers in harm’s way, much like the Interior Department’s drone policies have made it riskier to fight wildfires. There are serious consequences to these protectionist policies that achieve no security benefit, as shown by the many independent and federal agency validations confirming that DJI products are safe and secure for government operations.”
For further information please see these links:
- How the Interior Department’s drone policy hurts wildfire suppression:https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2020/sep/06/wildfires-trump-ban-chinese-drones
- The most recent independent validation of DJI’s data security:https://www.dji.com/newsroom/news/dji-expands-data-privacy-protections-for-government-and-commercial-drone-operators
- Prior independent evaluations of DJI’s data security from U.S. cybersecurity firms Kivu Consulting and Booz Allen Hamilton, as well as the U.S. Department of Interior, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. For more information about DJI’s cybersecurity protections, please visit https://security.dji.com/data/overview/.
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