Interior Department Grounds Drone Fleet Over Fears of Chinese Spying

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The United States Interior Department is grounding its fleet of more than 800 drones over concerns that the Chinese is using the devices to spy or facilitate cyberattacks, according to the Wall Street Journal.

There have been growing concerns among military and Homeland Security officials that the UAVs, which are made in China or consist of Chinese-made parts, are gathering sensitive information for the Chinese government.

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Last year the company tried to address the swelling fears by sharing independent research findings from a San Francisco-based consulting firm that seemed to quell the notion that DJI was mishandling consumer data. But a Gizmodo review of the report at the time found that the the review of the company’s handling of personally identifiable information, flight logs, and data storage overlooked some concerns that had been raised by researchers.

That report doesn’t seem to have abated the concerns of officials in the Interior Department which uses drones to fight fires and monitor dams, erosion, and endangered species. The Journal first reported that Interior Secretary David Bernhardt issued an order on Wednesday grounding all drones until the agency finishes reviewing possible security threats of Chinese drones.

“Secretary Bernhardt is reviewing the Department of the Interior’s drone program,” Interior Department spokesperson Melissa Brown told Gizmodo. “Until this review is completed, the Secretary has directed that drones manufactured in China or made from Chinese components be grounded unless they are currently being utilized for emergency purposes, such as fighting wildfires, search and rescue, and dealing with natural disasters that may threaten life or property.”

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DJI told Gizmodo in a statement that the company is “disappointed to learn of this development,” adding that it has “worked with the Department of Interior to create a safe and secure drone solution that meets their rigorous requirements, which was developed over the course of 15 months with DOI officials, independent cybersecurity professionals, and experts at NASA.”

Last month a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced a bill aiming to block federal agencies from purchasing UAVs from China. “China has stolen sensitive drone technology from America’s businesses and military for years, and now sells it back to us from a dominant position in the commercial drone market,” said one of the bill’s sponsors, Senator Tom Cotton, said in a statement at the time. “Relying on drones made by our adversaries is a clear risk to our national security.”

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About the author

Jennings Brown

Senior editor and reporter at Gizmodo