GOP’s top FCC official calls for ban on DJI drone sales in US

DJI drones security threat

As late US President Ronald Reagan might (again) say, “there you go again.” Militants of widening bans on Chinese tech sold in the US have again locked DJI drones into their sites as security threats  – with the crosshairs this time belonging to the senior Republican commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)

On Tuesday, commissioner Brendan Carr urged that DJI drones and other products be added to the FCC’s Covered List, which prohibits government funds to be spent on goods produced by blacklisted companies. Appointed by former President Donald Trump, and a leading advocate of cracking down on what he calls security threats posed by Chinese companies in the US, Carr likened DJI to the telecom giant Huawei. That company was slapped with US bans in 2019 on fears its mobile phones and infrastructure could soak up vast data flows from individuals, businesses, and government administrations using them.

“We do not need an airborne version of Huawei,” Carr wrote. “DJI drones and the surveillance technology on board these systems are collecting vast amounts of sensitive data ­– everything from high-resolution images of critical infrastructure to facial recognition technology and remote sensors that can measure an individual’s body temperature and heart rate.

“Security researchers have also found that DJI’s software applications collect large quantities of personal information from the operator’s smartphone that could be exploited by Beijing,” he continued, offering a list of arguments for why DJI shouldn’t be trusted – including oft-cited allegations the company assists China’s government in spying on its own citizen, and in persecuting its Muslim minority population in Xinjiang province. “Indeed, one former Pentagon official stated that ‘we know that a lot of the information is sent back to China from’ DJI drones.”

To utterly exhaust what is an already tired expression, we’ve seen this movie before. 

Carr’s appeal follows a series of anti-DJI offensives amid worsening US-China relations. Last December the company was added to the US Department of Commerce’s Entity List, effectively prohibiting government administrations from using its UAV. Despite different leaked documents earlier this year claiming DJI drones posed no security threats to administration operators – who, to boot, complained that approved alternatives were more expensive and less effective in use – the company remains on the banned scrolls. 

In response to those, however, US drone industry lobbies redoubled their accusations of data piracy and product dumping they allege allowed DJI to establish its market domination. For over a year now, each new suggestion the company’s drones aren’t anything to worry about has served as inspiration for reinvigorated counterattacks.

Security protection – and economic protectionism – become a bipartisan anti-DJI platform

That Carr is leading a new push by urging DJI be added to the Covered List along with Chinese tech companies ZTE, Hytera, Dahua, and Hikvision isn’t a surprise. As FCC commissioner, he has championed an array of measures that would make business hard, or impossible, for Chinese companies working in sensitive US sectors. Previously, he served as a legal advisor to FCC chairman Ajit Pai, whose tenure was marked by an anti-regulation drive that weakened the agency from within, and by his controversial commitment to ending enforcement of net neutrality.

Yet the anti-China front now frequently labeling DJI drones safety threats to the US isn’t an exclusively conservative formation, but rather active on both sides of the ideological aisle. Indeed, last month a Republican member of the House of Representatives locked arms with a Democratic partner in urging their peers and the public against any notions of removing DJI from the Entity List. More general denunciations of China, and calls for the US to protect itself from security and economic risks Chinese companies pose, have been frequent and loud from both parties.

Carr’s plea adding another voice to that chorus, therefore, indicates DJI, its drones, and other Chinese businesses are more likely to see even more reruns of this same movie in the foreseeable future than they’d care to sit through.

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