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Saturday, March 2, 2024

Chinese Drones: Risk to Our Economy and Threat to our Homeland Security

They surveil the battlefield on behalf of the Russian military, providing warfighters with both critical intelligence and a difficult-to-detect vector of attack against Ukrainian soldiers, villages, and infrastructure. About 1200 miles almost exactly due south, in Israel and Gaza, Hamas uses them to scramble Israeli surveillance systems and attack border defense forces, which enabled its terrorist forces to massacre 1,300 citizens in early October. 

Meanwhile, despite the recent passing of the American Security Drone Act which prohibits government agencies from using federal funds to purchase Chinese-made drones, as well as the current alerts to the national law enforcement community from CISA – Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and FBI, concerning threats emanating from these drones against our critical infrastructure, American police are still gravitating to drones manufactured by Beijing.  While these UASs continue to fly freely in the U.S. with capabilities to map our infrastructure, pull our data, electrical facilities, and burrow deep into our corporate supply chains, the pilots operating these drones are our very own state & local police and corporate security partners.  

These cheap Chinese drones are predominantly manufactured by a firm called DJI that works closely with Beijing’s military. A 2022 investigation by The Washington Post and IPVM, a security research firm, reported that DJI, “obscured its Chinese government funding while claiming that Beijing had not invested in the firm.” 

They aren’t just an annoyance or menace. They potentially threaten our economy and system of government.

Let me explain.

Unmanned aviation systems (UASs)—drones—are arriving to American business in a big way. Forecasts predict up to a 60 percent compound annual growth rate for commercial UASs. Drones are extremely versatile and effective when fitted with payloads of cameras, thermal imagers, and other sensors. Corporate America is learning that drones provide great value for site management, infrastructure inspection and maintenance, deliveries, surveys and audits, energy exploration, perimeter security, loss prevention, inventory monitoring, aerial mapping and land use, and many other applications.

Drone use represents a textbook example of industry adopting new technologies to suit its needs, with the goal of generating maximum value for the lowest possible cost. This last part is critical. Until recently Chinese drones had no true competitor in the market at their price point, making them an easy choice. The drones are cheap because they are subsidized by the Chinese government to induce corporations and government agencies to purchase them. In fact, Chinese-made drones still command more than 75 percent of the U.S. public and private UAS market.

Meanwhile, government agencies—including our very own state and local police—have been acquiring Chinese drones in multitudes. Our law enforcement agencies overwhelmingly use Chinese-made drones because they provide more bang for the buck. Faced with decreasing budgets, record retirements, and surging workloads, our law enforcement leaders are finding that they are now compelled to make resource decisions that serve the interests of expediency. Drones save officer lives, prevent injuries, and conserve manpower. But these agencies haven’t considered the long-term effects.

Many in the national and homeland security profession believe China may indeed be receiving detailed access to our critical infrastructure data and metadata, using drones as a “loss leader” to extend its tendrils into the very fabric of our nation. Those tendrils weave their way through our power grid, water supply, Internet server farms, highways, bridges, ports, hospitals, military bases, chemical plants, fire, and police departments, and on and on and on. When our businesses use drones to look for leaks in oil pipelines, examine the structural integrity of bridges, count drums of chlorine in a PVC piping factory, or monitor cargo shipments at a seaport, China doesn’t only have a front-row seat, it has access to the owner’s box.

Accordingly, multiple federal and state agencies have banned these drones. Florida has funded an effort to replace Chinese drones with U.S.-made hardware and software. Late last year, Congress passed an amendment to Section 817 of the National Defense Authorization Act that prevents the DoD from contracting with DJI and other drone companies linked to the Chinese Communist Party. Last April, members of Congress introduced the Countering CCP Drones Act, which would bar DJI from connecting to the national telecommunications infrastructure. 

The same bans further indicate that Beijing has back doors to remotely access data captured by these drones. And the operating software is full of vulnerabilities. One study by German researchers found 16 separate bugs, 14 of which could be triggered remotely to down the drone.

It’s critical to understand that drones are just one part of a broad Chinese strategy that has targeted the U.S.’s democratic and capitalist underpinnings for decades. Article 7 of China’s National Intelligence Law mandates Chinese businesses to “support, assist, and cooperate” with the nation’s intelligence services.

At a recent meeting of international intelligence chiefs, the head of one service said that China is involved in “the most sustained, scaled and sophisticated theft of intellectual property and acquisition of expertise” in human history. Chinese agents are ensconced in every sector of U.S. institutions, businesses, agencies, and organizations: academia, defense contracting, IT, agriculture, aeronautics, the military, medicine and healthcare, nuclear power, ad infinitum. The federal government estimates that Chinese espionage costs the United States up to $600 billion a year—and that doesn’t quantify the political, social, and military toll.

We see extraordinary value in drones—particularly when they are made domestically. UAS systems should be used responsibly, however. Earlier this year the ACLU called for U.S. law enforcement to curtail drone use in the name of potential privacy issues. Privacy issues are critical, but the drone industry has a set of guidelines— “The Five C’s: Principles on the Responsible Use of Drones By Public Safety Agencies” — that clearly address the ACLU’s concerns. The principles include community engagement and transparency, civil liberties and privacy protection, common operating procedures, clear oversight and accountability, and cybersecurity.

Advocating for responsible drone development, procurement, and use falls squarely into that mission. When our businesses and public safety agencies fly Chinese drones, they are unwittingly putting the foundations of our economy and government at risk.

Paul Goldenberg
Paul Goldenberg
Paul Goldenberg spent nearly three decades in law enforcement; from walking a beat in the urban streets of Irvington, New Jersey to serving 10 years as a senior advisor to the Secretary of Homeland Security. For the past two decades, he has worked globally with police agencies across Europe, Scandinavia, the UK and in the Middle East in his capacity as Chief Advisor of Police and International Policing with the Rutgers University Miller Center on Policing and Community Resilience. Prior to that, he worked with the OSCE – the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the largest regional government security org in the world – to develop their first international police training program in domestic terrorism, hate crime and human rights. He is also a Distinguished Visiting Fellow for the University Ottawa PDI for Transnational Security, a senior officer with the Global Consortium of Law Enforcement Training Executives, CEO of Cardinal Point Strategies, and a former senior member of the NJ Attorney’s General Office.

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