Drone Manufacturer DJI Brands US Data Security Fears ‘Misleading And False’
Global drone giant DJI has reiterated its commitment to addressing privacy and security concerns which have emerged in the USA, before stressing: ‘Your data is not our business’.
Over the last few months, DJI has faced harsh accusations over its data security practices, while the so-called American Security Drone Act of 2019 aims to stop federal agencies and departments from buying off-the-shelf drones from China or any other country that are deemed a national security risk.
DJI has constantly rebuked allegations that its drones are being used to collect and share sensitive data from the USA, branding them incorrect and misleading. The company adds that these ‘false claims put the entire US drone industry at risk’ and such ‘fear-driven policy is not grounded in facts or reality’.
And last week at DJI’s flagship AirWorks conference, in Los Angeles, Mario Rebello, Regional Manager of North America and Vice-President of Government Relations for DJI, once again hit back at the accusations and reiterated that the company’s drones are ‘safe, secure and reliable’.
‘Stop Politicising The Drone Industry’
Addressing a packed audience during the opening keynote speech of AirWorks, Mr Rebello issued a stark warning to those trying to smear DJI’s name and the industry as a whole.
“Politicising the drone industry will only damage it,” he said.
“The allegations that have been made against us have no weight and there is no evidence against us. We want to clear our name against these accusations. These allegations are misleading, unfair and false.
“Our products are safe, secure and reliable. Security is an ongoing effort of DJI and we are committed to addressing these core issues on safety and security.
“Your data is not our business. We have handed over the control of data to you, the end-user.”
What Has DJI Done To Enhance Data Security?
Mr Rebello said that DJI has enhanced its data security through a number of measures.
These include the creation of a bug bounty programme (meant to reward researchers who came to the company with security vulnerabilities they have discovered) and the development of a product security committee.
DJI has also previously said that it has added to its security measures in numerous ways, such as:
- Embedding password and data encryption in its products;
- Only ever uploading US drone data to US cloud servers when users do choose to share it;
- Introducing Local Data Mode, which stops internet traffic to and from its DJI Pilot app, in order to provide enhanced data privacy assurances for sensitive government and enterprise customers.
To boost confidence even further, DJI launched the special Government Edition in June. The Chinese manufacturer said that this solution ‘has rigorous data controls that give federal agencies complete control of their data when flying DJI drones’ and that ‘Government Edition’s unique architecture ensures that drone data – including photos and videos captured during flight – never leave the drone and therefore can never be shared with unauthorised parties, including DJI’.
On top of this, Mr Rebello told AirWorks that DJI has hired independent security experts to test its drones.
He said: “External validations will give you assurances that the product is safe and secure. We have nothing to hide.”
Mr Rebello added that DJI is committed to addressing the core issues on safety and security through other ways, including transparency and education, as well as research and development.
However, he stressed that the ‘whole industry needs to collaborate on addressing these issues together’ and called for industry-wide security standards, ‘which enable, not disrupt’.
Data Security And Protecting The Industry’s Reputation At The Centre Of AirWorks 2019
Make no mistake, DJI is acutely aware of how big an issue data security is – and its potentially damaging impact.
Indeed, this fiercely divisive subject – as well as the need to protect the reputation of the drone industry as a whole – was an integral part of the three-day conference.
During day two’s keynote speech, Mr Rebello was joined on stage by Troy Gonzalez, chief engineer at Booz Allen Hamilton, and Darrell West, VP and director at the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution, to address data security concerns in drones.
In a sensible balancing statement, Mr Gonzalez said that it was about the industry engaging and collaborating with the relevant government regulators to help shape sensible policies which reassure the doubters but also allow the public to benefit from drones.
He said: “We know the public is concerned about privacy and security and the impact of new technologies on safety.
“These are things that everyone needs to address. The key thing is getting the government’s piece right, thinking about what are the appropriate policies and regulations which will reassure the public and that will give us the benefits that we want, while also mitigating possible risk, because we are seeing a lot of interest in this new technology at local state and federal levels.”
Day two’s keynote speech also focused on DJI’s efforts to create the safest products possible and called on the media and certain political quarters to stop the scaremongering, which could prompt kneejerk, industry-damaging decisions.
Brendan Schulman, DJI VP of Policy & Legal Affairs, said: “We need to get the message out there and educate policy-makers. Some people are demonising the industry, which could lead policy-makers to make rules and regulations that could impact operations. The myths about security and safety lead to bad policy and results.”
As part of this, he said that the DJI Policy Team wants to tackle these issues by proactively addressing the concerns of government; developing technology solutions to real problems; and protecting access to innovation by advocating for reasonable government policies based on facts, not myth.
On the subject of myth and creating unnecessary hysteria, Mr Schulman pointed to numerous media reports which have blamed drones for collisions with manned aircraft, only for it to be later confirmed that UAVs had nothing to do with it. Worryingly, the blame stories – often based on hearsay, rumour and unsubstantiated reports – were read and shared more than the subsequent truth articles, he said.
Mr Schulman told the conference that DJI has been leading on safety for years, with industry standards like geofencing, altitude limits and obstacle sensing.
He said that DJI has spent more than 30,000 hours working on safety features since 2017.
As part of this, DJI will install ADS-B receivers in every new drone model above 250 grams, starting in 2020. This sophisticated AirSense technology, which receives ADS-B signals from nearby airplanes and helicopters, will warn drone pilots if they appear to be on a collision course.
When this was announced in May this year, DJI said that it represented ‘the largest single deployment of ADS-B collision awareness technology to date, and sets a new standard by putting professional-grade aviation safety technology in drones available to everyone’.
“We weren’t asked to do this, but we are doing this because it is the right thing to do,” Mr Schulman told the AirWorks crowd.
He also added that DJI AeroScope is proving to be an effective drone detection solution.
He said: “AeroScope is making a difference to heads of states and airports. People are understanding how they can use remote ID to mitigate a drone threat and make key decisions.”
Heliguy is an AeroScope expert and has installed the solution at major UK airports.
What Is The Threat To DJI?
Over the last few months, government officials have turned up the heat on DJI, amid deteriorating relationships between the US and China.
In June, at a US Senate hearing, Harry Wingo, of National Defense University, claimed that through DJI, the Chinese were accessing key American geospatial information. This view prompted a very strong response from DJI, rubbishing these comments as ‘inaccurate’.
Then last month, a bipartisan group of lawmakers put forward legislation that would bar federal agencies from buying drones from China and any other country deemed a national-security risk.
The bill, the American Security Drone Act of 2019, proposes to ban federal departments and agencies from purchasing any commercial off-the-shelf drone or small unmanned aircraft system manufactured or assembled in China or other countries identified for national-security concerns. If passed, federal officials would have 180 days to stop using them.
DJI has duly responded to this, saying that ‘banning or restricting the use of drone technology based on where it is made is fear-driven policy not grounded in facts or reality.’
And it isn’t only DJI to speak out against the controversial American Security Drone Act of 2019.
If approved, it could cripple the Interior Department’s fleet of more than 600 drones, most of which are either manufactured in China or rely on components made in China.
Last year, Interior Department officials executed more than 10,000 flights to manage fires, survey erosion, monitor endangered species and inspect dams, along with other tasks, as part of its job to manage more than 500 million acres of US land. In 2018, officials used drones to rescue a Hawaii resident trapped by lava flows.
Mark Bathrick, director of the Interior Department’s Office of Aviation Services, estimated that using drones, which have data security features, saved more than $14million in taxpayer dollars in 2018.
“Our drone programme would be shut down,” he said in response to the bill.
On top of that, public safety officials have turned to DJI drones to carry out vital operations, from search and rescue to law enforcement and firefighting. Indeed, the fire departments of New York and Los Angeles – among the largest fire departments in the world – are just two major US public safety teams to use DJI drones.
Meanwhile, more than 120 people affiliated with public-safety agencies said their organisation intends to buy a DJI-brand drone within the next year, according to a recent survey conducted by the DroneResponders programme led by AIRT Inc.
And let’s not forget a key statistic which was announced at AirWorks – drones have saved at least 279 lives to date.
No matter what happens, one thing is for sure. This thorny data-security issue will not go away in a hurry, but rest assured that DJI and others in the exciting and rapidly-evolving drone industry will fight to protect its name and reputation in every way it can.
James is Heliguy’s Blogger and Drone Content Executive. James keeps our readers up to date with drone news within the ever-changing industry.