Interior Secretary and former oil industry lobbyist David Bernhardt
Interior Secretary and former oil industry lobbyist David Bernhardt
Photo: Getty Images

The U.S. Department of the Interior is formally banning its staff from using Chinese-made drones today, a move that comes after it grounded roughly 800 drones in its fleet last October, according to a new report from the Wall Street Journal. All of the Interior Department’s drones are made in China or are produced with Chinese parts.

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt (who previously worked as an oil industry lobbyist before joining President Trump’s cabinet), told the Wall Street Journal that the department was banning Chinese-made drones over potential espionage concerns and that images taken with the drones could be “valuable to foreign entities, organizations, and governments.”

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Bernhardt didn’t specify what a foreign adversary could do with the images nor did he back up claims that Chinese manufactured drones are particularly susceptible to spying or cyberattacks. Bernhardt did not immediately respond to questions from Gizmodo sent Wednesday morning.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has warned against Chinese-made DJI drones since 2017, insisting that the company may be handing off sensitive information to the Chinese government, based on unnamed information in the hobby drone community. DHS has claimed the Chinese government is most interested in railroad lines and utilities, both of which would be disrupted if the U.S. and China really did kick off a proper war.

Needless to say, DJI disputes claims that it shares information with the Chinese government in much the same way that China-based Huawei has denied similar allegations about its technology. The U.S. intelligence community has repeatedly warned against using Huawei for sensitive telecommunications infrastructure, leading to bans on Huawei equipment in the U.S. and a lawsuit by the U.S. Department of Justice that’s still underway.

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The Interior Department, which oversees the management of roughly one-fifth of all land in the U.S., will exempt any drones needed for emergency situations such as floods and wildfires, though details about what constitutes an “emergency” haven’t been publicly released. The department told the Journal that DJI drones have been used roughly a dozen times since the temporary ban was put in place last October.

Without the drones, human-flown helicopters and planes will have to fill the void for scouting various federal lands. And that means putting people in more dangerous situations often filled with smoke and other adverse conditions. Even on a good day, it’s more dangerous to put a human in the sky than a drone.

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The Journal notes that today’s order, which hasn’t been officially released as of this writing, doesn’t mention China by name. But much like other efforts by the Trump regime to obscure its real intentions (the so-called Muslim ban never mentioned Muslims), the real agenda is quite clear.

The New Cold War is in full swing, but without cost-effective replacements, it’s not like the U.S. government is favoring domestic business interests over a foreign competitor. The reality is that without Chinese drones, the U.S. government will simply be left in the past.

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Update, 1:12 pm ET: DJI got back to Gizmodo with a lengthy statement:

DJI is extremely disappointed by the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) order which inappropriately treats a technology’s country of origin as a litmus test for its performance, security and reliability. This action will ground the entire DOI drone program, which relies on drones made with globally sourced components to create the federal government’s largest and most innovative civilian drone fleet. This decision makes clear that the U.S. government’s concerns about DJI drones, which make up a small portion of the DOI fleet, have little to do with security and are instead part of a politically-motivated agenda to reduce market competition and support domestically produced drone technology, regardless of its merits.

DJI makes some of the industry’s most safe, secure, and trusted drone platforms for commercial operators. The security of our products designed specifically for the DOI and other U.S. government agencies have been independently tested and validated by U.S. cybersecurity consultants, U.S. federal agencies including the Department of Interior and the Department of Homeland Security, which proves today’s decision has nothing to do with security.

We are opposed to the politically-motivated country of origin restrictions masquerading as cybersecurity concerns and call for policymakers and industry stakeholders to create clear standards that will give commercial and government drone operators the assurance they need to confidently evaluate drone technology on the merits of performance, security and reliability, no matter where it is made.

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Matt Novak is the editor of Gizmodo's Paleofuture blog

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