US must put new limits on Chinese drone maker DJI, says Federal Communications Commission member

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A member of the US Federal Communications Commission said on Tuesday that the agency should impose restrictions on Chinese drone maker DJI Technology because it poses serious national security risks.

Describing DJI, the world’s largest drone maker, as “Huawei on wings”, Commissioner Brendan Carr called for the telecommunications watchdog agency to start the process of adding the company to its so-called “covered list”, he said in a statement.

The designation would prohibit the purchase of DJI equipment with money from a federal fund managed by the FCC.

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“They are collecting vast troves of sensitive data on Americans and US critical infrastructure, including high-risk images, facial recognition technology, and remote sensors that can measure an individual’s body temperature and heart rate,” said Carr, a Republican commissioner.

“DJI’s software application collects large quantities of personal information from the operator’s smartphone that could be exploited by Beijing,” he said.

“Everyone really understands the serious threat posed by Huawei. And we are in a very similar position potentially when it comes to DJI”, said Carr. “We don’t need an airborne version of Huawei.”

In March, the FCC added five Chinese companies – Huawei, ZTE, Hytera Communications, Hangzhou Hikvision Digital Technology and Zhejiang Dahua Technology – to the “covered list” as threats to US national security, aiming to removing unsafe products and service from US communications networks.

The move was in response to a 2019 law — the Secured and Trusted Communications Networks Act of 2019 — to weed out equipment considered to be an unacceptable risk to security.

Date set for US telecoms carriers to access fund for Huawei, ZTE replacement

As part of that effort, the FCC will soon begin accepting applications from rural telecommunications carriers, as part of an US$1.9 billion federal funding programme, to reimburse them for removing existing Huawei and ZTE equipment.

DJI has long been a source of controversy because its products account for more than 50 per cent of drone sales in the US.

Last year, the Commerce Department added the company to the Entity List, which bans it from buying parts from American companies, citing its involvement in China’s surveillance and alleged abuse of Uygurs in the Xinjiang region.

DJI is already prohibited from buying parts from American companies. Photo: Handout
DJI is already prohibited from buying parts from American companies. Photo: Handout

In July, the Department of Defence reiterated the national security threats posed by DJI and prohibited the Pentagon from using its drones.

The Chinese drone maker has denied the allegations. “DJI drones are safe and secure for critical and sensitive operations. Our systems are designed so customers never have to share their photos, videos or flight logs with anyone, including DJI,” the company said in a statement following Carr’s push.

“The data security architecture that protects this information has been repeatedly validated by US government agencies as well as respected private cybersecurity analysts,” the company said.

Carr said the FCC was looking to expand the ban by prohibiting all purchases of these companies’ products, including in the private sector.

This deliberation is the FCC’s answer to the Secure Equipment Act of 2021, a bill introduced in May by Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, that would require the agency to ban all sources of funding, not just federal money, from purchasing products from companies on the covered list.

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