On May 7th, Chris Murphy, the Junior Senator from Connecticut had sent a letter to the U.S. Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, expressing his concerns over an additional purchase of 16 DJI drones in addition to the hundreds of DJI’s drones already purchased by U.S. government agencies and the Department of Defense. In his letter, Murphy mentions that at least three separate agencies have found that the commercial unmanned aerial systems (UAS) from the Chinese drone manufacturer pose a potential national security threat. He urges the DoD to cut Chinese drone-maker DJI out of its business and suggests that the department works with domestic drone makers instead, even if they may require some assistance. A source close to the matter has indicated that the DoD has stopped using DJI as of May 24th as a result of Murphy’s letter.

DJI Inspire 2

Prior to Murphy’s letter, DJI was already in hot water

On August 2nd of last year, the Chinese drone manufacturer, officially named Da Jiang Innovations Science and Technology Company, first came under attack when the US Army decided to stop using DJI’s drones over cybersecurity concerns.

This was followed shortly thereafter by a memo from the Los Angeles office of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureau, claiming that ICE officials had “moderate confidence” that the DJI’s drones and software are “providing U.S. critical infrastructure and law enforcement data to the Chinese government.” The ICE memo states that:

“Much of the information collected includes proprietary and sensitive critical infrastructure data, such as detailed imagery of power control panels, security measures for critical infrastructure sites, or materials used in bridge construction. According to the source of information (SOI), DJI automatically uploads this information into cloud storage systems located in Taiwan, China, and Hong Kong, to which the Chinese government most likely has access.”

The document also accused DJI of using dumping techniques to increase their market share:

“In 2015, DJI aggressively dropped its prices by as much as 70 percent in less than one year, effectively forcing its main competitors out of the market. Since that time, DJI’s biggest competitors, Parrot in France, 3D RoboticsUSPER in the U.S., and Yuneec in China, all stopped production due to their inability to match DJI’s prices.19 Using dumping techniques, DJI was able to sell category one UAS in the United States for approximately $900 USD. Comparatively, other group one category UAS with the same level of technology sold for $3,500 USD.20”

Lastly, the memo states the information had come to them from a reliable source of information in the drone industry “with first and secondhand access.”

DJI’s response to the ICE memo

DJI responded to these claims with a statement saying that the “bulletin is based on clearly false and misleading claims from an unidentified source.”  The drone maker added that:

“As DJI explained to ICE, the allegations in the bulletin are so profoundly wrong as a factual matter that ICE should consider withdrawing it, or at least correcting its unsupportable assertions. DJI further urged ICE to consider whether the source of the allegations may have had a competitive or improper motive to interfere with DJI’s legitimate business by making false allegations about DJI.”

Through the law firm of McDermott Will & Emery, DJI had hired  Kivu Consulting, Inc. perform an independent investigation into DJI’s data security practices to stem the concerns that the drone maker may be using its products to spy for the Chinese government. The summarized findings of the report: “DJI’s UAV Data Transmission & Storage” practices, were released in April and Kivu concluded that “users have control over the types of data DJI drones collect, store, and transmit.

We received a copy of the Kivu report and went through it in detail, concluding that it indeed addresses most of the doubts related to “DJI’s UAV Data Transmission & Storage” practices. However, this does not mean that the Chinese government would not be able to access DJI’s data if they really wanted. Security researcher Kevin Finisterre has already shown us that personal data such as flight logs, visa, and passports from DJI customers was accessible on their servers.

In response to these concerns, DJI has taken action and issued various public statements. The company denies that its drones are capable of performing facial recognition. In the same statement, it claims the company did not sell its drones at a loss in the US market to drive out the competition.

Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy’s letter

Today we learn that Junior Senator from Connecticut, Chris Murphy had sent a letter on May 7th, to the U.S. Secretary of Defense, James Mattis. Murphy expresses his concern over a recent solicitation, Benning375EMB00073, for 16 additional DJI drones, that was awarded on April 18, 2018. Murphy said that:

“These 16 UAS add to a fleet of hundreds of previously purchased DJI UAS that were in operation prior to the August 2017 memos. Since it appears that Benning375EMB0007 was awarded contrary to the August 2017 directive, I ask that you provide me an update on the DoD policy regarding the use of UAS owned by, or manufactured in, a foreign nation, and whether the DoD still believes DJI UAS pose a security risk. I encourage you to, at a minimum, consider a DoD-wide directive banning the use of UAS owned by or manufactured in a foreign nation until further threat-assessments can be completed.

The Connecticut Senator also points out that other government bodies such as the Departments of Transportation, Agriculture and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have also issued solicitations for DJI UAS, and he raises the question if the Department of Defense “has any responsibility in alerting other agencies of these potential vulnerabilities?”

Murphy states his concerns about the “deluge of foreign-made military equipment purchased by the Department of Defense,” of which DJI’s drones are only a small part. The senator is a strong proponent of the Buy American Act and other statutes that require the U.S. government to purchase American-made manufactured goods, saying that:

“If the hundreds of DJI drones purchased by the U.S. government in the last several years had been American-made, we would not have subjected ourselves to this massive potential intrusion and exploitation of sensitive U.S. sites.”

The letter ends with Murphy’s suggestion to the U.S. Secretary of Defense to:

“Leverage existing resources like the Defense Production Act to bolster our domestic manufacturing capabilities. The burgeoning domestic UAS industry is currently competing with artificially priced foreign products that have been dumped in our domestic market. With some assistance, U.S. manufacturers are ready to fill your Department’s needs.”

Has DJI indeed been cut out of the DoD business?

Our source informed us that the Department of Defense, in response to Murphy’s letter, has indeed “put into effect measures to stop all use and contract use of DJI products.” Since Chris Murphy also sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee, responsible for allocating funds to DoD, his concerns carry a lot of weight.

DroneDJ has reached out to the Media department of the DoD to confirm this but has yet to receive an official answer. We will update this post as soon as we hear back from them.

Murphy’s letter puts the pressure back on DJI, which surely would have hoped that the Kivu report addressed any remaining government concerns. At the same time, the current state of affairs represents potentially huge opportunity for American Drone manufacturers.

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