In the past few months, hundreds of Chinese-made drones have been seen in Washington, D.C.’s restricted airspace. The country’s security services are worried that they could be used to spy and conduct foreign espionage.
The information comes from seven government officials, lawmakers, congressional staffers and contractors. These people share the classified information with Politico.
DJI, short for “Shenzhen DJI Sciences and Technologies Ltd.”, is a Chinese technology company headquartered in Shenzhen, Guangdong.
Although officials think Beijing isn’t in charge of these drone swarms, DJI got money from Chinese government investment groups, which it was said to have hidden. In fact, The Pentagon put DJI drones in the blacklist because of these connections.
The drones in this case are supposedly recreational drones. They were designed with restrictions called “geofencing” which keep them out of sensitive areas. However, people would find easy ways to tinker with these drones to make it fly over no-fly zones in the nation’s capital.
A government contractor who has helped to collect the data for federal authorities told POLITICO:
“There’s YouTube videos that could walk your grandparents through how to update the software on one of these drones to be non-detectable and to do a whole lot of other things — get rid of elevation ceilings, all kinds of stuff.”
“… anything that we see in D.C. that is a DJI-manufactured product has been hacked or manipulated to enable flight in these zones.”
And in the last 45 days, more than 100 such invasions have been recorded.
With DJI drones’ high-definition cameras or other sensors, one can easily use it to gather intelligence.
The contractor said:
“A more sophisticated user can use a drone for industrial espionage or cyber-attacks. One could land a drone on your house and start capturing all the wireless information that’s being broadcast out of your home”.
“Similarly, one could do that on a federal building, a power grid or other critical infrastructure. And the reality is, people on the tech side always said, ‘look, at any point in time the Chinese can take control of a DJI that’s flying in the air.'”
Rachel Stohl is the vice president of research programs at the think tank Stimson Center. She keeps a close eye on the global market for drones. She said:
“This is part of a trend of commercial drones for potentially nefarious reasons.”
It becomes even more dangerous as Chinese drone maker DJI is the world’s largest manufacturer of personal and professional drones. It also makes most recreational drones in the U.S.
The Pentagon and the Interior Department have banned or limited the use of Chinese made drones. But a survey in 2020 found that DJI drones are still used by thousands of government, state, and local agencies.
The most drones for public safety are in California, Texas, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Florida. Most of them are DJI models.
Senator Marco Rubio is the vice chair of the Intelligence Committee. He explained the risk of Chinese-made drones:
“Any technological product with origins in China or Chinese companies holds a real risk and potential of vulnerability that can be exploited both now and in a time of conflict.”
The senator also said:
“…anything that’s technological has the capability of having embedded, in the software or in the actual hardware, vulnerabilities that can be exploited at any given moment.”