Senate Hearing on DJI Drones & Security Untethers from Reality

Senate hearings on DJI camera drones

Another day, another ridiculous hearing on the potential security risks of camera drones. Specifically drones manufactured by DJI, a Chinese-based company. I’m beginning to believe none of the people making blanket statements have ever flown a drone. Here’s a general PSA for them. DJI drones bought from your local Best Buy are not the same as an MQ-1 Predator.  Though, I kinda want one. Maybe the next flagship drone?

DJI senate hearings
The New Face of Espionage?

The Transportation Subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee brought in a slate of what they consider experts and local officials sounding the espionage alarm on camera drones with a max focal length of 48mm.

Senate Testimony

Kicking off the testimony was Harry Wingo from the National Defense University. He led off with the proclamation that DJI has a ‘near monopoly’ of drone technology marketed in the United States. What he meant to say is that DJI is the dominant company in both consumer and enterprise drones. The more visible of which is on the consumer side. Ok, he’s not wrong, but is it DJI’s fault GoPro couldn’t compete in the camera drone market?

His testimony quickly departs from being balanced with the following statement during the hearing:

“American geospatial information is flown to Chinese data centers at an unprecedented level. This literally gives a Chinese company a view from above of our nation. DJI says that American data is safe, but its use of proprietary software networks means how would we know.”

First, he actually said the data was flown to Chinese data centers. That’s on the level of the internet is a series of tubes. Second, DJI has an app which you don’t have to use. There are alternatives.

The biggest takeaway from Wingo’s statement is it’s completely contradictory. He makes an absolute proclamation our images, and geospatial data is being ‘flown’ to China. Then he follows it up with he actually doesn’t know. Sorry, Harry, but which one is it? Maybe the National Defense University could take a look before sending you to testify?

DOD and DJI

Next, he brought out the DOD banning the use of DJI drones. Ok, but it’s the DOD. They prohibit a lot of things from secure installations. Try snapping a photo at an NSGA facility and see what happens.

Though, maybe the DOD should rescind the ban. Having a Phantom 4 Pro on standby when filming the aftermath of the alleged oil tanker attacks this past week would have been great. The footage released? Talk about potato quality. The first gulf war had clearer gun camera footage.  

Continuing, Wingo decried local governments for adopting DJI drones for use in police and fire departments. “When you consider protecting a U.S. city at that level, to hand that information over is concerning,” he said. Brother, I’m confused. You just said you didn’t know and now you’re back to making absolute declarations. It’s cool. You don’t know what DJI camera drones are for. I’ll help you out.

They don’t turn themselves on and fly through the most sensitive parts of government buildings snapping pictures. It’s for Instagrammers and YouTube personalities to make creative content. Fire and police departments use them to assist in their jobs. And guess what? You can file a FOIA request for the footage.

DJI’s Response

Naturally, DJI’s response is pushing back. The official line from the company is:

The speculation about the security of DJI’s technology presented at today’s hearing is false. As a privately-held global technology company, DJI gives customers full and complete control over how their data is collected, stored, and transmitted. DJI drones do not share any data with DJI, over the internet, or in any other manner unless the operator deliberately chooses to do so. The security of our technology has been independently verified by the U.S. government, and our products meet all of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s data management recommendations. DJI is proud to play a central role in driving the U.S. drone economy, which is expected to surpass $82 billion and create more than 100,000 jobs by 2025, and we welcome a competitive and open market that promotes innovation, safety, reliability, and security.

Again, the drones the panel was testifying about have a max focal length of 48mm with a max flight time of 30 minutes. I’ve seen enough spy movies to know that’s not remotely efficient.  

In a humorous twist, we know which company is creating drones that’ll spy on private citizens. Amazon. Say hello to a patent granted to the company on June 4:

ABSTRACT

All unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) may perform a surveillance action at a property of an authorized party. The property may be defined by a geo-fence, which may be a virtual perimeter or boundary around a real-world geographic area. The UAV may image the property to generate surveillance images, and the surveillance images may include image data of objects inside the geo-fence and image data of objects outside the geo-fence. While gathering surveillance images, or after the surveillance images have been gathered, the geo-fence information may be used to obscure or remove image data referring to objects outside the geo-fence. Geo-clipped surveillance images may be generated by physically constraining a sensor of the UAV, by performing pre-image capture processing, or post-image capture processing. Geo-clipped surveillance images may be limited to authorized property, so privacy is ensured for private persons and property.

You have to feel for the Senate Transportation Subcommittee. Maybe camera drones isn’t their game. There’s always infrastructure week.

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