Is Drone Maker DJI Sending Data to Chinese Intelligence Officials?

Drone juggernaut, DJI is facing scrutiny today after attention is drawn to an August report from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (I.C.E.) / Homeland Security office in Las Angeles. In it, officials said that they had “moderate confidence” that the DJI’s commercial drones and software are “providing U.S. critical infrastructure and law enforcement data to the Chinese government.” While the agency did not identify their source, they did say that it was a reliable source within the drone industry “with first and secondhand access.”

The memo, from the Los Angeles office of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureau, was dated in August but had begun to circulate online more recently.

Anyone who has experience operating a DJI drone is familiar with their iOS or Android app.  It saves and uploads (to DJI cloud storage in China) flight metadata such as flight path, altitude, duration, and even saves some still photographs along with their location data.  This flight log can be reviewed in the app at any time and it is believed that this same data (to include the photos) is available to Chinese officials.

U.S. I.C.E. is not the first group to question the use of DJI aircraft.  In August 2017, the U.S. Army issued a memo to its units to immediately discontinue the use of DJI UAS due to an increased awareness of cyber vulnerabilities associated with DJI products.

Example of Flight Plan from DJI Go app.

The report went on to accuse DJI of ‘dumping,’ an illegal practice of exporting a product at a price lower than the cost to manufacture the product or lower than the price the manufacturer would charge in its own home market.  This technique is sometimes used in order to gain market share in a specific region.  In this case, the report alleges that DJI used illegal dumping tactics to force US manufacturer 3D Robotics (3DR) to cease manufacturing and grow DJI’s share of the consumer drone market to around 72% globally and over 60% in North America according to a report by analysts, Skylogic Research. Some analysts estimate their global market share as high as 85%.

In a statement, DJI responded, indicating the report was “based on clearly false and misleading claims.”

“The allegations in the bulletin are so profoundly wrong as a factual matter that ICE should consider withdrawing it, or at least correcting its unsupportable assertions,” the company said.

A Reoccuring Theme?

This isn’t the first time a Chinese company has faced this type of scrutiny.  In 2012, the U.S. House Intelligence Committee released a report titled, “Investigative Report on the U.S. National Security Issues Posed by Chinese Telecommunications Companies Huawei and ZTE“.  In this report, the Committee stated, “…Huawei did not fully cooperate with the investigation and was unwilling to explain its relationship with the Chinese government or Chinese Communist Party, while credible evidence exists that Huawei fails to comply with U.S. laws.”  they went on to recommend, “U.S. government systems, particularly sensitive systems, should not include Huawei or ZTE equipment, including in component parts.”

I imagine that the investigation into this allegation will continue as the U.S. views DJI and other Chinese manufacturers with a critical eye.  The company has actively courted senior level management from critical infrastructure sectors to include U.S. railroads and utilities.  With drone use in inspections becoming more and more common, drones are now looking at railroads, power lines, oil and gas facilities, bridges, wind farms and countless other components of our national infrastructure.  DJI   With DJI branching out of the consumer market and moving into Commercial/Enterprise segments with the Matrice, Spreading Wings, and MG series aircraft, it is clear that DJI cameras could very well be looking at critical components very soon if they aren’t already.