If the war in Ukraine has demonstrated anything, it is that the critical military significance of drones as a platform for surveillance and intelligence collection. Imagine, then, if American skies were filled with drones made in China. Sadly, that is not a fevered nightmare; it is reality.

Fortunately, the American Security Drone Act offers a partial answer. This bipartisan bill would ban federal agencies’ from using DJI, Autel Robotics, and other Chinese-made drones. It was recently added to the Fiscal Year 2024 National Defense Authorization Act by the U.S. Senate and deserves favorable consideration. The importance of its inclusion to protecting America’s national security interests cannot be overstated.

The concern is real. Experts and elected officials from the Department of Defense, the Treasury Department and the Department of Commerce have all raised credible concerns over the use of Chinese-made drones.

Most Chinese companies argue that their ties to the Chinese Communist Party are innocuous. But the country’s Military Civil Fusion laws require private companies to share data and technology with the Chinese military whenever CCP leadership deems it beneficial for advancing the People’s Liberation Army’s interests. That’s one of the reasons that Congress, the Pentagon, and the White House have all raised alarms over Americans’ use of Huawei, TikTok, and other Chinese apps. The same concerns apply, with even greater force, to Chinese drone makers like DJI.

Chinese drone companies control almost 90% of the American marketplace and have far more than peripheral connections to the CCP. In 2022, the Department of Defense officially identified one of them, DJI, as a “Chinese military company.” A Washington Post investigation uncovered that DJI “obscured its Chinese government funding while claiming that Beijing had not invested in the firm.” According to the documents reviewed by the paper, “four investment bodies owned or administered by Beijing have invested in the popular drone brand in recent years, including a state asset manager that has pledged to play a key role in promoting partnerships between private enterprises and the Chinese military.”

DJI claims that it geofences its systems to ensure they do not pass over the U.S.’s no-fly zones; however, security researchers have demonstrated they can be easily hacked to bypass America’s restricted airspace. So it should not come as much of a surprise that America’s intelligence and defense experts have provided the U.S. Senate Homeland Security, Commerce, and Intelligence committees with classified briefings about DJI drones that, it has been reported, they have detected over restricted sites in Washington, D.C.

If anything, the situation is made even worse by the recent deployment of DJI Dock, a launch and landing station that will allow for the remote control of drones. Because the dock will need to be attached to enterprise networks, often behind the firewall, it is likely to pose and even greater risk to enterprise security that that already existing through drone deployment.

All of this is a good example of why FBI has expressed its concern with Chinese infiltration: “the greatest long-term threat to our nation’s information and intellectual property, and to our economic vitality, is the counterintelligence and economic espionage threat from China.” Many analysts believe the country has already stolen everything from airplane designs to weapon blueprints from this country. If US Federal agencies continue to utilize CCP-connected drones, this threat will only increase in severity.

We are starting to notice the risk and act. The Federal Communications Commission, the government agency that authorizes drone use on U.S. communications networks, has called for new restrictions on Chinese-made drones. In 2020, Congress prohibited the Department of Defense from purchasing these systems, while the Pentagon banned all commercial off-the-shelf drones because of security concerns two years earlier. Broadening the existing DOD prohibition to the remainder of the federal government is the next logical step in mitigating this growing intelligence threat.

There is bipartisan Congressional recognition of the threat that CCP-connected drones pose. Earlier this year, Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), the Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) led a coalition letter signed by a bipartisan group of 14 of their colleagues requesting the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) analyze the security risks posed by DJI. Their efforts led to the American Security Drones Act now included in the NDAA.

It is encouraging to see Democrats and Republicans in Congress agreeing on the need to limit Chinese drone technology in the federal government and collaborating to defend their country from this significant security risk. The country’s national security infrastructure will be better off because of it.

Paul Rosenzweig is a cyber security professor at George Washington University, a Senior Fellow in the Tech, Law & Security Program at the American University, Washington College of Law, and the former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy in the Department of Homeland Security. He is the author of Cyber Warfare: How Conflicts in Cyberspace are Challenging America and Changing the World and of three video lecture series from The Great Courses, Thinking About Cybersecurity: From Cyber Crime to Cyber Warfare; The Surveillance State: Big Data, Freedom, and You; and Investigating American Presidents.

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