US Interior Department to ground Chinese-made drones: report

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The US Interior Department said on Wednesday that it is grounding all drones made in China or containing China-made parts on fears of espionage and cyberattacks, Bloomberg reported, a move which effectively pulls from the field its entire fleet pending an agency review.

Why it matters: The grounding is the latest in a flurry of US decisions to shun industry-leading Chinese tech companies citing national security concerns.

Details: The government agency responsible for managing all federal land, the Interior Department is concerned that the drones could be used to send classified information, mainly videos and photos, of sensitive US infrastructure that could later be attacked, according to the Wall Street Journal.

  • The department manages 810 drones, 15% of which were made by Chinese drone giant DJI. The rest are made in China either entirely or in part, Bloomberg quoted a department spokeswoman saying.
  • While the agency conducts the security review, non-essential drones will be grounded except those used for emergencies, such as fighting wildfires and search and rescue efforts.
  • DJI did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Thursday.

“For far too long, we have turned a blind eye to China and allowed their technology into some of the most critical operations of the U.S. Government. This has to stop.”

⁠—Rick Scott, Republican senator in the American Security Drone Act

Context: More than 14 federal agencies including the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Homeland Security use drones, the Wall Street Journal said.

  • On Sept. 18, Republican Senators Rick Scott and Dan Crenshaw introduced a bill that would prevent federal agencies from buying drones made in countries that “pose a national security risk” or are “subject to extrajudicial direction from a foreign government.” The American Security Drone Act singles out involvement with China and the Communist Party as reason to halt the purchase of drones. The bill has yet to go through committee review.
  • It is unclear whether the Interior Department’s decision will appease Republican hardliners.
  • In May 2019, the Department of Homeland Security issued a warning to civilian users of Chinese drones, saying that the government is concerned about devices that move “American data into the territory of an authoritarian state that permits its intelligence services to have unfettered access to that data.”
  • In 2017, the US Army decided to stop buying drones made by DJI due to security concerns.
  • Shenzhen-based drone giant DJI is by far the world’s leader in unmanned aircraft. In 2018, it held a 70% share of the consumer drone market.