Bill Could Block Federal Money for Drones Made in China

Arizona Sen. Martha McSally is leading the latest push against drones manufactured in China. Her proposal would prevent state and local agencies from using federal money to buy or operate such technology.

by / May 27, 2020
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If a proposed U.S. Senate bill passes, public safety agencies wouldn’t be able to use federal dollars to purchase drones made in China. 

The bill, titled “Securing Our Skies Against Chinese Technology Act of 2020,” would also prohibit state and local public safety organizations from receiving future funding unless they certify that they’re not using a “drone manufactured in the People’s Republic of China or by an entity owned or controlled by the Government of the People’s Republic of China.”

Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., introduced the legislation last week. In a statement, McSally said the law is a “commonsense step” that would protect the country from malevolent intelligence gathering. 

“At a time when federal agencies are banning or grounding Chinese drones base[d] on cybersecurity concerns, China is now donating them to state and local law enforcement across the United States,” McSally said. “This is just another part of China’s ongoing effort to exploit the global pandemic and it is unacceptable. We should not risk giving China the chance to spy on Americans amid our efforts to combat the coronavirus.”

McSally’s statement made reference to Chinese company DJI, which has donated dozens of drones to U.S. public safety agencies as part of its Disaster Relief Program. This program has helped support the rise of drone usage by local police departments in response to COVID-19. 

In an email to Government Technology, Mark Aitken, director of U.S. legislative affairs for DJI, dismissed the bill as another version of the American Security Drone Act of 2019

“Senator McSally’s copycat bill tries to put a new face on the old and discredited idea of taking lifesaving technology away from America’s first responders, including firefighters and law enforcement officers across Arizona,” he said in the email. “The government experts who actually use drones agree that banning or restricting drone technology based on where it is made is fear-driven policy that would make America less safe, and that the U.S. businesses and government agencies that use DJI drones can secure and protect the data they collect.”

Segments of the federal government have been skeptical of drones made in China for years. In 2017, an investigative unit within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) concluded with “high confidence” that DJI markets drones to U.S. organizations to “expand its ability to collect and exploit sensitive U.S. data.” During the same year, the U.S. Army stopped using DJI products. 

Not all government research, however, has led to negative findings in regard to using DJI drones. For example, a 2019 DHS report suggested that “two models of DJI drones were safe for federal use when equipped with a suite of cybersecurity upgrades called Government Edition,” as written in Politico. The report still urged caution, implying that data theft could occur “with the right conditions and circumstances.”

Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of the Interior officially grounded hundreds of DJI drones, though it didn’t specifically mention concerns about China spying. The order followed a more informal “pause” of the technology in late 2019. DJI provided a reaction to The Verge about this pause.

“We are aware the Department of Interior has decided to ground its entire drone program and are disappointed to learn of this development,” a DJI spokesperson told The Verge. “As the leader in commercial drone technology, we have worked with the Department of Interior to create a safe and secure drone solution that meets their rigorous requirements, which was developed over the course of 15 months with DOI officials, independent cybersecurity professionals, and experts at NASA. We will continue to support the Department of Interior and provide assistance as it reviews its drone fleet so the agency can quickly resume the use of drones to help federal workers conduct vital operations.”

Earlier this month, 14 GOP members of the U.S. House of Representatives wrote a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice and DHS’ Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency requesting an investigation of DJI drone use among law enforcement agencies in the nation, according to The Federalist. The letter requested, among other items, a list of all such agencies that have used federal funds to buy or utilize DJI drones. 

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Jed Pressgrove Staff Writer

Jed Pressgrove has been a writer and editor for about 15 years. He received a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in sociology from Mississippi State University.

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