Ellen Lord, the Pentagon’s chief officer in charge of new technology acquisitions, appeared on a virtual panel Thursday to discuss the threat to the United States from small drones from Chinese companies like DJI. And while it seems natural to many within the National Security Institute that a geopolitical opponent like China should not be trusted, Lord did not explain why Chinese-made hobby drones pose a security threat. At some point, it would be great to know some details.
“The problem, in my opinion, is that the People’s Republic of China dominates the global market for small UAS,” said Lord during the panel on Thursday under the acronym for unmanned aerial systems. “Special, A single Chinese company, DJI, has a monopoly in UAS manufacturing with around 77% of the small UAS market share. Intel follows far behind DJI with only 3.7% of the market. “
“For small UAS technologies in the thousand to two thousand dollar segment, DJI’s market share is even higher at around 86%,” continued Lord, not adding anything about security threats.
The virtual panel whose video was published online by the Department of DefenseThe host was Lora Ries, an anti-immigration activist at the Heritage Foundation who previously worked for President Donald Trump’s Department of Homeland Security as Deputy Chief of Staff.
The gentleman who came closest to discussing the security issues of Chinese drones said, “We are extremely concerned about the data exfiltration from these Chinese UAS.”
Okay we get it. China dominates the small drone market and you are concerned about data exfiltration, which just means gathering information. But what exactly is the security problem that arises from data theft as we advance the New Cold War? And do we have proof that China is able to collect data from DJI drones in American airspace in the same way as from a US-made drone?
And what’s the worst case scenario? Scenario? Do we fear that the Chinese government will somehow take over the drones and fly them to sensitive locations for surveillance or terrorism? Do we fear China has a master switch to automatically disable drones in the US if they are all made by DJI? These are not just idle questions. They determine how enormous sums of money are distributed in the Pentagon, and the public deserves some detailed answers.
This problem comes up again and again when US officials talk about Chinese manufacturing and national security. The Pentagon says Chinese technology is a threat – whether it is 5G router from Huawei, TikToks Social media platform, or DJI’s drones– But defense officials often refuse to pinpoint the specific threat model. Again and again, just like Lord on Thursday, there is vague talk of security problems without consulting the American people about what those problems might be.
The US Department of the Interior banned all employees from using DJI devices back in January, citing concerns that photos taken with the drones “could be of value to foreign companies, organizations and governments”. But again, there is no evidence that DJI drones are more vulnerable to cyberattacks or that anyone from the Chinese government would have the ability to obtain information from a DJI drone.
Ultimately, everything about the so-called national security foundation for these bans feels like simple economic protectionism that has the potential to bite America’s ass across the board. Every other sentence from Lord’s mouth talked about the economic benefits to US business if Americans dominated the drone market – a role the US military plays but doesn’t often tell the American public to say.
None of this means that China is in any way an honest actor on the world stage. The Chinese government currently operates a system of concentration camps for the majority Muslim population, the Uyghurs. If the goal of avoiding Chinese technologies is really to sanction China for human rights abuses, the US government should say so. Instead, we know through extensive reporting that Trump actually admires authoritarians and has no problem with what President Xi Jinping is doing to the Uyghurs.
“Trump said Xi should continue building the camps, which Trump thought was just the thing,” wrote former National Security Advisor John Bolton in his recent book about meeting Xi in 2019.
This does not mean that the Chinese technology is safe. However, there are many reasons to remain skeptical of the idea that national security is at stake. At the European Commission published a report Regarding global spy agencies on the Internet in 2001, she noted that one of the primary goals of state espionage was not national security, but economic benefit. The report cites several examples of US intelligence agencies hacking other countries’ computer systems to gain an economic advantage, even if only to a privately owned company. The NSA and CIA have reportedly sent hacked information from overseas to American companies such as General Motors and Raytheon to outbid international rivals and uncover trade secrets.
It is not inherent A bad idea to have a strong base for making drones domestically. But Americans deserve to know how and why the Pentagon is using public funds to help this market grow. And that knowledge is likely to be part of a much broader discussion about using drones for privacy-related applications like law enforcement and border security.
If there’s one thing you can bet on throughout history, it’s that any technology the U.S. military uses overseas will eventually come home to be used there domestic population. We saw it in US-Mexico border and we saw it in Supercomputers.
War always comes home, and it is reasonable to ask if it is wise to use taxpayers’ money to get Skynet rolling. Ultimately, that’s more or less what we’re talking about when we say the US military needs better drones.