China’s ‘spy balloon’ casts shade on DJI drones flown by UK police

UK police DJI drone

Continued US uproar over spy balloons from China has drifted across the Atlantic, where UK authorities are now sounding alarms over the abundance of Chinese surveillance technologies used by official administrations – including the dominance of DJI drones in police fleets.

The rumble of concern has been rising since the start of the week, when news reports circulated details of the prevalence of surveillance, monitoring, and video equipment from China in operation by various governmental or state organizations. The loudest of those came from The Telegraph, which used a Freedom of Information petition to obtain statistics indicating “at least 230 of the 337 drones operated by 37 police forces are models supplied by DJI.” It noted 11 departments refused to provide details, “suggesting the numbers could be much higher.”

In light of the recent media obsession over the Chinese balloon shot down while presumably spying above the US – and the blacklisting of various China-based companies and products, including DJI drones, by US government agencies ­– UK officials are now joining the rising chorus of warnings. 

Read: Report of DJI ‘Chinese drone threat’ in DC skies should direct accusing finger at US legislators

Today, the official state watchdog, Office of the Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner (OBSCC), produced a report titled “UK policing ‘shot through’ with Chinese surveillance technology.” That conclusion was based on a recent survey conducted that found, in part, a majority of law enforcement agencies are using DJI drones. 

It failed to note, however, that the number of DJI craft in use by the nation’s coppers didn’t seem to bother anyone until a massive balloon from China traipsing above US territory became the unrelenting obsession of US politicians and media.

“There has been a lot in the news in recent days about how concerned we should be about Chinese spy balloons 60,000 feet up in the sky,” the report’s author noted in a rather flagrant avowal about the timing and tone of its publication. “I do not understand why we are not at least as concerned about the Chinese cameras six feet above our head in the street and elsewhere.”

One reason might be that despite broadening US government blacklisting of DJI drones – which UK military and police units had until now ignored as they continued to procure the company’s UAVs – no evidence whatever has thus far been produced to substantiate allegations from Washington that the craft and servers storing the data collect had leaked information to the Chinese government.

ReadBegging to differ with US ban, UK’s MoD buys DJI drones

DJI, meanwhile, has repeatedly and flatly rejected those claims, and pointed out that users must actively approve the sharing of data their drones capture before that can occur.

Without doubt, the concern voiced in the OBSCC report is also based on the other kinds and brands of Chinese surveillance tech its survey found cops, military units, and intelligence agencies relying on beyond UAVs.

But with “23 of the 31 respondents who said they operate cameras on drones… (variously with video, audio, and thermal imaging and/or night vision capability), (saying) they were aware of security or ethical concerns about the manufacturer of their drones, Chinese company, DJI,” much attention has been directed at UK police forces deploying the craft.

ReadWhat could DJI release in 2023? Here’s a leaker’s guess

Of course, few people underestimate the effort and zeal with which China’s government spies on its citizens – and others around the globe – and violates human and civil rights to advance its interests. Given that ruthlessness, it’s also legitimate to suspect some private companies may be forced to do the regime’s bidding in certain circumstances. 

But without actual, substantiated proof DJI and its drones are among those, the US bans – and new UK alarmism – may only result in removing superior aerial products from work performed by official agencies, which may then be obliged to buy less effective and more expensive alternatives.

That eventuality would be especially confounding for UK police forces, which have been among the most active – and praised – in the world in using (largely DJI) drones in operations that have rescued lost peoplenabbed escaping criminals, prevented uncivil behavior, and generally made the country a safer place. 

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