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FCC commissioner calls for government ban on DJI drones

Updated Oct 20th, 2021 8:01AM EDT
DJI drone
Image: Jonathan Newton - Pool via CNP/MEGA

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Comparing DJI drone technology to “Huawei on wings,” the senior Republican member on the Federal Communications Commission on Tuesday called for the government to cease purchases of DJI products. Specifically, the FCC’s Brendan Carr is recommending that products from DJI — the largest maker of drones in the world — be put on a blacklist, similar to what the US in 2019 did with Huawei. That move, of course, hobbled the latter company’s ambition to not only be one of the top global smartphone makers. It also disrupted Huawei’s hope to spread its 5G technology far and wide.

The Trump administration, warning that these kinds of products posed a potential national security threat, put a stop to that. And to understand why event the hint of something like this happening to DJI is a big deal, consider the following. Revenue at Huawei, as a result of the US-led blacklisting, has plummeted for three consecutive quarters. Buyers globally are fleeing the company’s products. Huawei has also slipped to #9 in smartphone sales. In response? Huawei has doubled down on alternative lines of business, like electric cars.

DJI drone ban coming?

DJI, meanwhile, is a Shenzhen-based drone company. According to an FCC news release Tuesday, it accounts for more than 50 percent of the US drone market. “DJI’s collection of vast troves of sensitive data is especially troubling given that China’s National Intelligence Law grants the Chinese government the power to compel DJI to assist it in espionage activities,” Carr said in the release. “In fact, the Commerce Department placed DJI on its Entity List last year, citing DJI’s role in Communist China’s surveillance and abuse of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.”

Unfortunately, law enforcement agencies around the US have been buying up DJI drones anyway. Axios reported last month, for example, that the Secret Service bought eight DJI drones in late July. The FBI reportedly bought 19 drones around the same time. Carr, of course, sees this trend, too, as untenable.

DJI drones and the surveillance technology embedded therein, his statement continued, collect a “vast amount of sensitive data.” Everything, he said, from high-res images of critical infrastructure to even granular data like a person’s body temperature and heart rate. DJI’s software applications also collect large quantities of personal information from the operator’s smartphone, he continued. That’s data which, obviously, “could be exploited by Beijing.”

‘Strong concerns’

Carr lists the following points as part of a much broader array of concerns he shared about DJI. They include:

  • An alert issued in 2019 by the Dept. of Homeland Security. Focused on Chinese-made drones like DJI’s, it warned that the US government “has strong concerns about any technology product that takes American data into the territory of an authoritarian state that permits its intelligence services to have unfettered access to that data or otherwise abuses that access.”
  • Also in 2019, Congress prohibited the US Dept. of Defense from buying Chinese-made drones. This ban included DJI drones, with national security concerns cited as the reason.
  • And in July of this year, the Dept. of Defense reiterated its concern about DJI. Saying the department remains convinced that its products “pose potential threats to national security.” DJI drones are still barred by the department today.
Andy Meek Trending News Editor

Andy Meek is a reporter based in Memphis who has covered media, entertainment, and culture for over 20 years. His work has appeared in outlets including The Guardian, Forbes, and The Financial Times, and he’s written for BGR since 2015. Andy's coverage includes technology and entertainment, and he has a particular interest in all things streaming.

Over the years, he’s interviewed legendary figures in entertainment and tech that range from Stan Lee to John McAfee, Peter Thiel, and Reed Hastings.

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