Chinese-Made Drones Enforcing Social Distancing in U.S., Raises Concerns About Spying

A Chinese-made DJI Mavic Zoom drone flies during a product launch in New York in 2018. Washington has warned Chinese-made drones could be giving Beijing's spy agencies unfettered access to sensitive material
GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA/AFP Drew Angerer

An MSNBC segment from late last week raised some eyebrows after it uncovered a program that some municipalities across the U.S. are partaking in, using Chinese-made drones to enforce social distancing among Americans.

“The drones make it easier for police to see into certain areas where access by patrol cars is more difficult,” MSNBC reported. “That includes tight spaces between buildings, behind schools, and in backyards. Failure to comply could lead to a summons or a thousand dollar fine.”

“If these drones save one life, it is clearly worth the activity and the information that the drones are sending,” said Democrat Mayor J. Christian Bollwage of Elizabeth, New Jersey.

The network said the drones were donated by DJI, a Chinese company that has distributed its product to “43 agencies in 22 states” to enforce social distancing rules.

Local officials say the drones are not collecting evidence or taking pictures of people, and say the drones are just a high-tech way to enforce a warning against catching a deadly virus.

But federal law enforcement officials had knowledge in the past that these drones were collecting personal information and sending it to the Chinese government.

The New York Times reported in 2017 that officials said they had “moderate confidence” that DJI’s drones were “providing U.S. critical infrastructure and law enforcement data to the Chinese government.”

The Chinese company, however, denied the allegations, according to the Times.

In January, the Times reported that the Interior Department, which was using drones from DJI, was ordered to stop using “its entire fleet of drones out of concerns that Chinese parts in them might be used for spying.”

Defense One also reported that the U.S. Army was ordered to stop using the consumer version of the DJI drones over concerns of Chinese spying.

“Cease all use, uninstall all DJI applications, remove all batteries/storage media from devices, and secure equipment for follow on direction,” reads the memo from Lt. Gen. Joseph H. Anderson, the Army’s deputy chief of staff for plans and operations.

The drones were being deployed by state and local officials in the following states, according to a map from DJI:

  • New York
  • New Jersey
  • Virginia
  • Oregon
  • Washington
  • California
  • Oklahoma
  • Texas
  • South Dakota
  • Wisconsin
  • Michigan
  • Illinois
  • Louisiana
  • Indiana
  • Mississippi
  • Alabama
  • Georgia
  • Florida
  • South Carolina
  • Maryland

 

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