While Japan’s new policies tightening regulations on drone procurement from April 2021 do not mention any country by name, government officials make clear the move has been drawn up in light of recent red flags thrown up by Chinese manufacturers.
Japan’s worries centre on the fact that opaque Chinese manufacturers and security systems do not inspire confidence with regards to the safety of the information these devices capture – and transfer.
Indeed, drones are already used by Japanese authorities and other governments worldwide to capture highly detailed topographic imagery of infrastructure, military and nuclear sites, and sensitive border areas, as well as civilian data.
While Japan is already shelling out almost €2.4 billion to diversify away from its current reliance on China for key supply chains, drones represent merely the latest of a series of potential Chinese threats to the island country’s security interests.
Nor is Japan the first government to freeze out Chinese drone suppliers, suggesting stronger headwinds picking up against them in the months to come.
An American precedent
The Japanese move is hardly a surprise considering the example set by Tokyo’s closest ally – the United States – in response to rising American anxieties about Chinese tech.
Ever since Beijing has emerged as a near-peer military competitor whose technological advances are taking off at record speed, US defence forces have been on high alert over Chinese dominance of key industries such as drone manufacturing.
Fears in Washington have been further propelled by the Chinese Communist Party’s cybersecurity policies, which force Chinese companies to proffer all of the data they collect upon state request. Since 8% of the US population already owns Chinese-made drones, the potential implications of such data sharing are hard to overstate.
More than any other company, these moves to limit the use of Chinese drone technology will hit the world’s foremost drone supplier, DJI Technology Co., which has captured the lion’s share of the global drone market since it was founded in Shenzhen in 2010.
As DJI’s footprint has grown, outside scrutiny has predictably increased, to the point where the company is now embroiled in a number of debates surrounding the security of its products and the access the Chinese state could potentially enjoy to DJI user data.
Phoning home to China?
Multiple studies earlier this year into the DJI GO 4 and Mimo drone apps, conducted by security firms including River Loop, Synacktiv, and GRIMM, uncovered not only that these DJI apps were collecting data from their drones’ GPS, but also that they were forcing updates on users’ phones and collecting personal data from their devices that could be used to track individuals or intercept their communications.
The firms’ research also revealed the transmission of data to servers “behind the great firewall of China,” with GRIMM concluding that DJI had “created an effective targeting system” ripe for the picking by Chinese authorities.
These studies have added to fears within the US Department of Defense (DoD), which began phasing out DJI equipment two years ago. A year later, the US Interior Department grounded their fleet of over 800 drones, predominantly Chinese.
The Pentagon has since drawn up a whitelist of small Unmanned Aircraft Systems – dubbed Blue sUAS – for the procurement of drones from trusted American or allied manufacturers.
Using this Blue sUAS system, the Department of the Interior has now resumed the purchase of nonemergency drones. In response, DJI is now offering security features including a “local data mode” it claims prevents drones from exchanging data during flights.
DJI’s hard bargain
For all these measures, some leading voices in Washington say the US government still hasn’t gone far enough. The Heritage Foundation recently cited DJI’s connections to human rights violations against the Uyghur people of Xinjiang to call for DJI to be placed on the “Entity List” restricting its access to the US market, in line with restrictions recently imposed on Huawei.
Those calls for further action are fuelled by the fact local law enforcement and consumers in the US continue to choose DJI drones, primarily because of the attractive price tag.
A Homeland Security inquest discovered DJI slashed prices for its products by 70% in 2015, pushing numerous competitors out of the sky. This tactic secured the Chinese company 70% of a blossoming drone market set to be worth $43.1 billion by 2024.
That same approach has worked in Europe as well, where DJI’s affordable drones have seduced both military and civilian clients. British police employ off-the-shelf DJI drones to search for cannabis farms and missing persons, while French parachutists use them during missions in the Sahel.
In parallel, the Covid-19 pandemic has seen DJI devices outfitted with speakers for confinement-related enforcement and public service announcements in Nice and Brussels. DJI has even suggested using them for monitoring body temperature and transporting Covid-19 tests.
With the US and now Japan making a clean break with DJI, Europe now finds itself lagging on yet another Chinese cyber threat. Already in the case of Huawei, EU countries have only begun to respond to the potential threat under immense pressure from the US.
In September, Germany announced telecommunications regulations that effectively excluded Huawei from the imminent rollout of 5G in the country, in response to a US warning that failure to do so would lead Washington to curtail intelligence sharing with Berlin.
This track record has DJI breathing easy in Europe – at least for now. A DJI representative announced in April that they “are not expecting or experiencing any political headwinds in Europe”. But as with Huawei, DJI’s currently indulgent European customers could grow more hostile as European suspicions of Chinese intentions mount.
Just this month, the German Defence Minister declared that China poses a “major challenge” with regards to Beijing’s advancing territorial claims in the South China Sea during the pandemic. Next year, Berlin will be sending some of its naval officers into the region for joint exercises with Australia.
As European action on Huawei and China’s geopolitical manoeuvring sours ties between the EU and Beijing, DJI’s drones – and the data they collect – could soon become a bone of contention in their own right.
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