DJI and Camera Drones Targeted as DHS Joins US-China Trade War

DHS targets DJI in escalating trade war

It’s been busy on the camera drone front. First, it was DJI raising prices thanks to tariffs. Second, the FAA released new rules without the actual system in place we are supposed to use in place. And to cap off the hat trick of news was a DHS alert on Chinese-made drones and its concerns the products could be a security risk.

Yeah, concerns. Here’s the statement released late Monday:

“The United States government has strong concerns about any technology product that takes American data into the territory of an authoritarian state that permits its intelligence services to have unfettered access to that data or otherwise abuses that access.”

“Those concerns apply with equal force to certain Chinese-made (unmanned aircraft systems)-connected devices capable of collecting and transferring potentially revealing data about their operations and the individuals and entities operating them, as China imposes unusually stringent obligations on its citizens to support national intelligence activities.”

In case you’ve missed American politics the past few years, that is a pure Trumpian statement. Concerns? So, the Department of Homeland Security can’t say for certain and refuses to name the company they are targeting. DJI sells around 80% of off-the-shelf camera drones and manufacturers in China.

And you either know, or you don’t know. What the DHS said above is not a national security alert, but political posturing for a trade deal going nowhere fast.

How do we know? Exhibit A is Huawei.   

You may have heard of the Chinese smartphone maker who had its products effectively banned in the United States via executive order by President Trump. The reason? National security. Ok, let’s run with that rationale. The President and his national security team have reams of information the general public does not. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt because it’s their job.

Guess what company just received a 90-day reprieve from the Commerce Department to maintain its network and push security updates to handsets. Yeah, Huawei.

It doesn’t take a stable genius to see giving a company deemed a threat to the safety and security of the United States a 90-day license is damn odd. Makes for one hell of a security threat. Keep doing what you’re doing fellas, but the license expires on August 31.

DJI’s Exposure to DHS Alert

While not named in the alert, DJI is the only target when discussing camera drones. And the company does have a bit of bad history here. In 2017, the U.S. Army wrote a memo banning the use of DJI drones over security concerns.

Before you bandwagon with DHS, remember, the rules are different on military bases. I grew up on plenty of them when my father was in the Navy attached to NSGA installations. Want to have a host of M.P.s chasing you down? Try taking a picture of the ‘dino’ cages at any NSGA installation. Once you step on a military base, the rules change. That’s not because of DJI. Still, it didn’t look good for the company.

The same year, an internal memo surfaced from an ICE intelligence division in Los Angeles accusing the company of “selectively targeting government and privately owned entities within (the US. critical infrastructure and law enforcement sectors) to expand its ability to collect and exploit sensitive U.S. data.”

DJI was quick with a response to the DHS alert releasing a statement:

“At DJI, safety is at the core of everything we do, and the security of our technology has been independently verified by the U.S. government and leading U.S. businesses. We give customers full and complete control over how their data is collected, stored, and transmitted. For government and critical infrastructure customers that require additional assurances, we provide drones that do not transfer data to DJI or via the internet, and our customers can enable all the precautions DHS recommends.”

It also referred back to 2018 when it commissioned Kivu Consulting to essentially audit how it handles customer data and its security practices. While not as helpful a fully-independent audit, the company did offer up suggestions in areas DJI should improve upon. In the end, Kivu generally defended the company’s practices when it came to data storage, flight logs, and personal identifiers.

What Happens Now?

There’s the $64,000 question. Trade negotiations via Twitter and political statements from intel agencies are uncharted territory. The Huawei license shows the companies are not security threats, but pawns in political posturing, which seems to lack any definable goal other than a news cycle.

Will DJI suffer the same ban as Huawei? That would be seismic as the company has complete dominance over the drone market. I’d lean towards no due to the wording of the DHS statement. It sounds ominous and is designed to get headlines. The only thing missing is the part where DHS says they heard about the concerns from many people.

It’s a perfect storm. DJI has bad history here. It doesn’t matter if it’s unfounded or true. That narrative has been cast. The trade negotiations between the United States and China are a mess. Yesterday’s alert from DHS was political and not remotely actionable. And we have a President who whipsaws from one issue to another depending on who happens to be on Fox News.

Fun times for those of us who want to grab awesome stills and videos from our camera drones. If anything significant breaks, we will be on top of it. For now, the DHS alert did what it set out to achieve. Create upheaval and maximum distraction. Mission accomplished.

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