U.S. Air Force’s purchase of Shenzhen unmanned aerial camera criticized for endangering national security

The U.S. Air Force is alleged to have bought 57 unmanned aerial cameras made by Shenzhen-based DJI (DJI) in September this year, raising concerns. The Wall Street Journal pointed out that the US military’s important data could be leaked to the Chinese government, compromising national security.

The U.S. Congress passed a law last year that prohibits federal agencies from buying unmanned aerial cameras made in China, but they are exempt if they are used for intelligence and training purposes in the Air Force or abroad. The U.S. Air Force’s Special Operations Command (SOCOM) continued to buy 57 aerial cameras made by DJI in September this year, citing the cheapness and practicality of its products.

The military responded by saying that the purchase did not violate a bill passed last year, and that the drones were being used to train military personnel to defend themselves in the event of an attack. DJI spokesman Adam Lisberg said the drones have built-in protection software to keep messages safe and ensure that no data is leaked.

In the past, the US military has been buying unmanned aerial drones from Chinese companies, and in June this year a military memo approved the use of drones made by DJI for training, analysis and other work, as well as some of the same types of drones used in overseas intelligence and surveillance operations.

Critics say the Chinese-made drones could be used to collect important information about the U.S. military and infrastructure sector, and transmit the data back to China. Senator Rick Scott, who helped pass the bill last year, has expressed concern about the use of such Chinese-made unmanned aerial drones, saying that the practice of military law contradicts the principles of the legislation passed last year.

U.S. Special Operations Command spokesman Tim Hawkins pointed out that when the military uses such unmanned aerial vehicles, it still uses protective network security software and follows strict regulations to protect national security from infringement. He added that the Air Force would not use the drones for specific operations to prevent some of the footage from being recorded and endangering the U.S. and its allies.

DJI sent a letter to U.S. congressmen last month stating that “the so-called national security concerns are simply an attempt to impose economic protectionism” so that U.S. companies can compete. The company mentioned that there is no evidence so far that the data collected by the aerial camera would leak to the Chinese government.

In 2017, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security wrote a report that DJI drones could collect U.S. government data. At the time, more than a dozen federal agencies, including the Department of the Interior, were using the brand of drones. Authorities were concerned about the compromise of hundreds of types of data on model programs involved in fighting mountain fires and rescue efforts.

China passed a cybersecurity law in 2016 requiring Chinese companies to provide the data collected to the country if needed, causing concern to the U.S. Department of the Interior, which then put a hold on use of the equipment in question, but the Air Force is protected by an exemption order and can continue to use the equipment.