House Judiciary Republicans Launch Inquiry into Use of Chinese Drones to Enforce Social Distancing in the U.S.

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

House Judiciary Committee Republicans on Wednesday launched an inquiry into the use of Chinese drones in the United States to enforce social distancing, which could provide the Chinese government with an ability to collect and exploit sensitive data.

Republicans on the committee sent a letter to the Justice Department (DOJ) and the Homeland Security Department (DHS) to request information on the use of drones produced by Da Jiang Innovations (DJI), a company that accounts for nearly 80 percent of drone sales in the U.S.

The letter said that in response to the coronavirus epidemic, DJI has “donated drones to state and local law enforcement entities in the United States to purportedly assist with social distancing enforcement.”

“Although federal law enforcement agencies have warned of potential information security concerns with DJI drones, it is not clear whether state and local law agencies are fully aware of these issues,” the letter said.

On April 1, 2020, DJI donated 100 drones to 45 police, fire, and public safety organizations in 22 states “under the potential guise of helping with the problems caused by the coronavirus pandemic,” the letter said.

As early as 2017, government investigative agencies began warning about the use of DJI drones providing the Chinese government with U.S. critical infrastructure and law enforcement data, according to the letter.

Homeland Security Investigations — an investigative unit of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) — issued an alert in 2017 that assessed with high confidence that DJI “is selectively targeting government and privately owned entities within [infrastructure and law enforcement sectors] too expand its ability to collect and exploit sensitive U.S. data.”

DHS’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) warned in May 2019 that Chinese-made drones pose a “potential risk of an organization’s information.”

Due to these concerns, some federal departments and agencies have banned the use of DJI drones, including the U.S. Army and the Interior Department. Furthermore, the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act banned the purchase and use of Chinese-made drones across the U.S. military.

The letter was led by Committee Member Matt Gaetz (R-FL), and signed by Ranking Member Jim Jordan (R-OH), F. James Sensenbrenner (WI), Steve Chabot (OH), Louie Gohmert (TX), Doug Collins (GA), Ken Buck (CO), Mike Johnson (LA), Andy Biggs (AZ), Tom McClintock (CA), Debbie Lesko (AZ), Guy Reschenthaler (PA), Ben Cline (VA), W. Gregory Steube (FL).

They requested the following information from DOJ:

  1. A list of all state, local, territorial, and tribal law enforcement agencies receiving federal grant funding to purchase or operate DJI drones covering the period from January 1, 2017, to the present;
  2. Please explain what policies and procedures grant recipients must have in place to receive federal support to purchase or operate DJI drones, including any restrictions and exemptions that apply;
  3. Please explain whether any concerns about DJI drones have arisen during Departmentwide UAS working group activities since January 1, 2017; and
  4. Please explain whether the Department is monitoring DJI’s recent provision of drones to state and local law enforcement agencies during the coronavirus pandemic and what actions, if any, the Department is taking in response

And from DHS:

  1. What, if anything, is the Department’s role in providing technical assistance and guidance to states and localities that have purchased or received DJI products;
  2. Has the Department issued any new alerts since CISA’s May 20, 2019, warning that Chinese-made drones present a “potential risk of an organization’s information?” If so, please provide the Committee with information and documents regarding any such alert; and
  3. Please explain whether the Department is monitoring DJI’s recent provision of drones to state and local law-enforcement agencies during the coronavirus pandemic and what actions, if any, the Department is taking in response.

“We request that you provide this information as soon as possible but no later than 5:00 p.m. on May 27, 2020,” they wrote.

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