Revealed: US grounded Chinese drones despite security warnings

A United States government agency grounded its drone fleet over concerns China could use the unmanned aircraft for spying despite internal warnings that a ban would in fact increase security risks, documents obtained by Al Jazeera reveal.

The US Department of Interior (DOI) also disregarded warnings the ban could hamper efforts to fight wildfires, months before officials reported the restrictions were making fire-fighting more difficult and dangerous, the documents show.The DOI, which manages public lands and resources in the US, ordered the temporary grounding of drones made in China or containing Chinese parts in October 2019 amid deep suspicion of Chinese technology within the administration of former US President Donald Trump.

Then-Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt formalised the ban in January 2020 with an open-ended order grounding the DOI’s entire 810-strong fleet of unmanned aircraft systems (UAVs) – whose uses include responding to natural disasters, geological surveys and wildlife population monitoring – until “cybersecurity, technology and domestic production concerns are adequately addressed”.

The order, which followed years of warnings that drones made by firms such as Shenzhen-based DJI could be secretly sending data to Beijing, included exceptions for emergency uses, such as fighting wildfires and search-and-rescue missions.

DOI officials raised concerns about the negative consequences of grounding its drone fleet [US Department of Interior] But a DOI briefing about the drone programme, obtained under a freedom of information request, shows that officials at the time expressed concern that grounding the drones – almost all of which were Chinese-made or contained Chinese parts – would force the department to rely on contractors ill-equipped to guard against cybersecurity risks.

“Bureaus will likely resort to end product contracts to obtain data that would have been otherwise been [sic] obtained by DOI fleet UAS,” Mark Bathrick, the then-director of the Office of Aviation Services, said in the briefing document.

“The increased risk to the Department of this is that many commercial UAS vendors are using the same Chinese DJI drones as DOI, but without the custom built to DOI UAS security specification software, firmware and hardware present in DOI’s DJI drones.”

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