Various members of the US government are famous for buying into crazy conspiracy theories. Now, the Los Angeles office of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has come up with a whopper of its own. These guys think China is spying on unsuspecting Americans with DJI drones.
The New York Times just reported on an August memo from Homeland Security Investigations claiming that DJI is likely collecting sensitive data from its commercial drones in the United States and sharing it with the Chinese government. Largely citing “a reliable source within the unmanned aerial systems (UAS) industry”, the memo specifically suggests that DJI is targeting law enforcement, military and infrastructure builders in such a way that the intelligence collected would enable China to launch cyber or even physical attacks more easily. And on top of that, the Homeland Security investigators also claim that DJI is using data gathered by drones to game markets, since they potentially gather data about farms, shipping facilities and so forth. It all sounds pretty bonkers to be honest.
DJI flatly denied these claims and told the Times that the memo is “based on clearly false and misleading claims”. The company wasn’t reserved in its objection, either. “The allegations in the bulletin are so profoundly wrong as a factual matter that ICE should consider withdrawing it, or at least correcting its unsupportable assertions,” DJI told the paper.
But if you believe the conspiracy, you probably think that this is exactly what a Chinese government puppet company would say. Of course DJI would claim that American investigators are “profoundly wrong”, you might say. The truth could start World War III, you may think.
Then again, the ICE memo makes some pretty outlandish claims. While DJI is perhaps most famous for its consumer drones, the company amped up its commercial drone business after the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) legalised the use of commercial drones in 2014. However, ICE and the Homeland Security investigators now claim that DJI is going after specific markets in order to sabotage and potentially mount an attack on the US. From the memo:
DJI is particularly interested in exploiting data from two critical infrastructure sectors: U.S. railroads and utilities. … DJI is inviting key customers to attend training sessions and conferences to further encourage U.S. companies to purchase and use DJI systems
Is it a conspiracy? Or is it simple marketing? You decide.
Here’s another whopper. Because random American business are buying DJI drones and using them for business purposes, the Homeland Security investigators suggest that the company is sending the data collected by these drones to the Chinese government and using them for China’s own commercial purposes. From the memo:
Furthermore, the Chinese government is likely using information acquired from DJI systems as a way to target assets they are planning to purchase. For instance, a large family-owned wine producer in California purchased DJI UAS to survey its vineyards and monitor grape production. Soon afterwards, Chinese companies began purchasing vineyards in the same area. According to the [source of information], it appeared the companies were able to use DJI data to their own benefit and profit.
Conspiracy? Or coincidence? You be the judge.
And the memo ends with what is perhaps the most paranoid conclusion of them all. It involves the terrorists. From the memo:
SIP Los Angeles assesses with high confidence the critical infrastructure and law enforcement entities using DJI systems are collecting sensitive intelligence that the Chinese government could use to conduct physical or cyber attacks against the United States and its population. Alternatively, China could provide DJI information to terrorist organisations, hostile non-state entities, or state-sponsored groups to coordinate attacks against U.S. critical infrastructure.
Any rational person will admit that the data gathered from drones could be shared with government organisations or others. Sure, those organisations could decide to do bad things with this information, and the outcome could affect American citizens in a negative way. But you could say the same thing about mobile phone data or fitness tracker data or internet browsing data. As one Gizmodo editor suggested, the difference between reality and the conspiracy-minded conclusions this memo jumps to is like the difference between saying “consumer mobile phones have security vulnerabilities” and “my iPhone is listening to me and serving me Adidas ads”. The latter is possible, but there doesn’t appear to be any proof.
In this case, DJI insists that its customers “have total control over whether to upload data, such as flight plans and video, to the company’s servers,” according to The New York Times. It’s worth pointing out that DJI did face some security vulnerabilities that potentially allowed third parties to intercept some data. This led to the US Army to stop using its drones and for DJI to release a new “local data mode” that prevented data from being transmitted. It’s still a hell of a leap to suggest that DJI itself is surreptitiously intercepting data and sharing it with the Chinese government, possibly for military purposes. The idea simply sounds like a conspiracy theory, based on the information in the ICE memo.
The fact that one office of Homeland Security Investigations released a memo a few months ago doesn’t necessarily mean that anything is going to happen. There’s no indication that US customs officials will halt the import of DJI drones or that the FBI will launch an investigation into the matter. Such outcomes seem unlikely since so much time has passed since the memo was first distributed. Then again, conspiracy theorists would have you believe that this was the plan all along. Nobody knows about the real investigation because the Chinese government’s keeping it secret by manipulating the microchips in Chinese-made smartphones. That’s the real conspiracy, man. The microchips…