The “Is DJI spying?” saga continues in Washington, DC, and at least one state capital. This week, 14 Republican representatives on the House Judiciary Committee sent letters to both the departments of Justice and Homeland Security to investigate government use of DJI drones.
The current uproar stems from DJI’s Disaster Relief Program, which has loaned 100 drones to local governments in their efforts to fight the coronavirus epidemic. In Daytona Beach, Florida, for instance, local police have used DJI Mavic 2 Enterprise drones to issue warnings for people that public parks are closed due to lockdown orders. In Chula Vista, California, police have used the drone to spot and send alerts to homeless encampments about public services available to their residents.
An ongoing battle
But Republican lawmakers have warned that DJI drones may be collecting information about US infrastructure and sending it back to the Chinese government for espionage. The top signature on the two letters is from Representative Matt Gaetz (R-FL), who has been a vocal critic of DJI. He set off a social media storm with a recent appearance on Fox News in which he leveled claims of spying against the company.
Each of the letters opens with a recitation of government studies and actions that call into question DJI’s intentions. They include an oft-referenced 2017 Homeland Security Investigations alert warning that DJI drones are “[l]ikely providing US critical infrastructure and law enforcement data to [the] Chinese government.” The alert stated with a high degree of confidence that DJI “is selectively targeting government and privately owned entities within [infrastructure and law enforcement sectors] to expand its ability to collect and exploit sensitive US data.”
The letters also reference the fact that the US Army banned the use of Chinese-made drones in 2017. Meanwhile, the Department of the Interior grounded its fleet of foreign-made drones in January 2020.
The letters go on to request extensive information from the agencies. From the Justice Department, for instance, they ask for a “list of all state, local, territorial, and tribal law enforcement agencies receiving federal grant funding to purchase or operate DJI drones covering the period from January 1, 2017, to the present.” The letter also asks DOJ “whether any concerns about DJI drones have arisen.” And the representatives ask both DOJ and Homeland Security whether they are monitoring DJI’s current provision of drones to local and state law enforcement agencies during the pandemic.
Republicans are in the minority in the current House of Representatives. So their ability to formally investigate DJI would depend on Democratic support. No Democrats have signed the two letters.
Meanwhile, South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson (also a Republican) has said that he does not want his state agencies using DJI drones, claiming that “all information recorded by these drones would be reported to China.” The AG is now trying to determine which local governments have received DJI drones.
DJI has consistently stated, over years now, that it does not cooperate with the Chinese government. The company insists it is not collecting data to share with any state entities.