As police departments across the nation use drone surveillance to enforce social distancing in both public and private spaces during statewide shelter-in-place orders, Congress is now asking questions about the technology’s Chinese origins and potential security risks.
A Chinese company known as Da Jiang Innovations (DJI) donated surveillance drones to 43 law enforcement agencies in 23 states across the United States.
Fourteen GOP House members wrote a joint letter to the Department of Justice and Homeland Security asking these institutions to investigate the origin and legality of using drone technology from China. The letters are addressed to the DOJ’s Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Katharine Sullivan and Director of Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) Christopher Krebs.
“We respectfully write to request information about state and local law enforcement use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) produced by [DJI], a Chinese company that accounts for nearly 80 percent of drone sales in the United States,” reads the letter obtained by The Federalist.
Now it appears there have been prior warnings against the use of DJI technology. According to the joint letter, in 2017 the Homeland Security Investigation (HSI) issued a warning against DJI drones as they are “like providing U.S. critical infrastructure and law enforcement data to [the] Chinese government.”
Last May, the Department of Homeland Security issued a memo warning that Chinese drones are possible security risks, ripe for the “potential use for terrorism, mass casualty incidents, interference with air traffic, as well as corporate espionage and invasions of privacy.”
After introducing new legislation against buying Chinese-made technology in 2019, Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., warned about potential data risks. “The Communist Party of China now has in their law the availability to interfere and take information from virtually every Chinese company,” Warner told NPR. “As long as that exists, that provides a whole set of vulnerabilities I think American business has to consider on a going-forward basis.”
Amid growing concerns, federal departments have banned the purchase and operation of DJI drones. The Army banned their purchase in 2017. The Interior Department temporarily retired non-emergency drones in January, and the Fiscal Year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act banned the purchase and use of Chinese-made drones in the U.S. military.
Amid reports of Chinese drone usage to patrol U.S. citizens, GOP representatives are asking for the following information from the DOJ and CISA:
- 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
- An explanation of 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
- An explanation of any concerns about DJI drones have arisen during DOJ-wide UAS working group activities since January 1, 2017
- An explanation of 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, DOJ and CISA is taking in response.
Drone invasions on private property clearly violate the 4th Amendment, and no new laws exist to govern the use of surveillance technology by police departments. This invasion of privacy could be made even worse if the drone technology used is benefiting the Chinese Communist Party in any manner.