February is proving to be an unpleasant month in the US for the world’s leading manufacturer of UAVs and other consumer tech. Just hours after a news report claimed the privately held DJI has received investments from state entities in China, a quartet of US legislators introduced bills aiming to have the company and its drones added to more federal blacklists.
That drive is being led in the Senate by a trio of the chamber’s most conservative – and media-conspicuous – members, Marco Rubio (R-FL), Rick Scott (R-FL), and Tom Cotton (R-AR). The “Countering CCP Drones Act” they introduced Thursday insists DJI and its UAVs be added to the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Covered List of prohibited companies and products. Equally conservative (and conspicuous) congresswoman Elise Sefanik (R-NY), meanwhile, tabled companion legislation in the US House of Representatives seeking the same blacklisting objective.
The initiative follows the very public appeal in October by the FCC’s senior Republican commissioner to heave DJI and its drones on the agency’s Covered List. Brendan Carr, who was appointed by former President Donald Trump, has been a leading advocate of cracking down on what he calls security threats posed by Chinese companies like Huawei. He similarly urged the FCC to add Shenzhen tech firm to its blacklist as other federal agencies have.
In December, DJI was one of eight Chinese businesses placed on a US Treasury banned list of alleged “Chinese military-industrial complex companies.” That came nearly a year after the world’s top drone maker went on the Department of Commerce’s Entity List, which prohibits businesses operating in the US from exporting technology to or investing in cited organizations.
Given their political and ideological proximity to Carr, it’s unsurprising that the four US legislators involved have taken the baton in going after DJI – especially amid the continually souring relations with China. Also less shocking was that in issuing their joint initiative, the GOP allies repeated earlier denunciations by politicians and US drone industry lobbyists.
Those include accusing DJI of collaborating with China’s governmental surveillance, with some detractors going further with claims the company’s drones have been used in the repression of Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang Province. Also echoed anew were warnings those UAVs represent data security threats to government, business, and private users, with Stefanik restating – nearly verbatim – Carr’s oft-cited charge the firm is an “airborne version of Huawei.”
“DJI drones pose the national security threat of Huawei, but with wings,” Stefanik said, failing to hyperlink the term to Carr’s inspiring quip.
The only new addition to the laundry list of allegations came from Scott, who picked up on the Washington Post report published the same day stating the company had received state funding, a claim which DJI swiftly denied.
“Communist China funds technology, like drones made by DJI, to spy on Americans and steal their data,” Scott said, similarly omitting a link back to the sole source of his contention
Though the four legislators are united in their common position on the right of the GOP (a unity that will probably permit Stefanik to forgive Rubio’s communiqué misspelling her name), it isn’t impossible that even more centrist Republicans, and even some Democrats will adhere to their blacklist campaign. Such is the force of anti-China winds blowing in Washington these days.
While few people, if anyone, doubt the activities and determination of Beijing to subvert or outright repress the liberties of its own citizens – and use tech and other means to invade the privacy of people and businesses around the globe – the alarming array of accusations out of DC against DJI and its drones have almost entirely failed to produce any actual evidence to back them up. Some hearsay examples seeking to substantiate those, meanwhile, have done no better, and in some cases been outright risible. (See Carr’s allegation that data including “an individual’s body temperature and heart rate” were among what he said a Pentagon official told him is information collected in the US that’s “’sent back to China from’ DJI drones.”)
The company, meanwhile, has repeatedly pointed out that its onboard tech – which thus far doesn’t monitor cardiac rhythm, signs of fever, or evidence of unflattering weight gain – is designed so users can prevent anybody else (including (DJI) from accessing it, confounding the theory of the craft being used as automated data leakers for Beijing.
Despite that – and given the potential stakes involved – US officials have opted for preventive punitive measures in the place of habitual “innocent until proven guilty” principles. That may be understandable in dealing with China, but it may well also be claiming an innocent DJI as collateral damage in a battle that’s far from ending, and ever widening.