DJI follows up U.S. Army drone ban with new stealth mode

Weeks after the U.S. Army announced that it would discontinue use of DJI drones due to “cyber vulnerabilities,” DJI launched a new stealth mode.

DJI this week announced the introduction of “local data mode,” which stops internet traffic to and from its flight control apps, in order to provide enhanced data privacy assurances for sensitive government and enterprise customers.

Earlier this month, news came out that the U.S. Army prohibited its troops from using DJI drones because of cyber-security concerns, according to a U.S. Army memo first obtained by sUAS news.

DJI said in a news release that local data mode has been in development for months.

In standard flight modes, DJI requires internet usage to connect to local maps, geofencing data, app updates, radio frequency and power requirements.

A drone operator from the Mosul Brigade of the Iraqi Special Operations Force 2 releases a drone during a military operation to retake parts of the al-Tamim area of Mosul from jihadists of the Islamic State group in 2016. ACHILLEAS ZAVALLIS/AFP/Getty Images

That’s left some users concerned about what’s happening to their data. The company reportedly uploads telemetry, video and audio data to its servers in the US, China and Hong Kong, according to Engadget. And drones have proven to be bait for hackers, who have in the past shown how they can break into the app. And in 2016, a DJI employee said in a briefing to journalists that the company had been sharing customer data with the Chinese government, though the company later clarified that information was only handed over if there was a valid legal request from the government.

With the new mode, pilots can prevent their DJI drones from sending or receiving any data over the internet. DJI says the new mode gives customers “enhanced assurances about the privacy of data generated during their flights.”

A soldier from the Mosul Brigade of the Iraqi Special Operations Force 2 operates a drone during a military advance to retake parts of the al-Tamim area of Mosul from jihadists of the Islamic State in 2016. ACHILLEAS ZAVALLIS/AFP/Getty Images

“We are creating local data mode to address the needs of our enterprise customers, including public and private organizations that are using DJI technology to perform sensitive operations around the world,” said Brendan Schulman, DJI Vice President of Policy and Legal Affairs in a prepared statement. “Local data mode will provide added assurances for customers with heightened data security needs.”

DJI drones have been used by military forces from many countries around the world. The Israel Defense Forces is using DJI Mavic and Matrice drones in the West Bank. A statement from an IDF spokesperson indicated that the IDF would continue using DJI’s drones, even after the news coming out of the U.S. Army.

An Israeli soldier uses a drone to monitor Palestinian stone throwers in the occupied West Bank city of Hebron as Israeli settlers visit the holy site of the tomb of Atnaeil Ben Kinaz during the celebrations of the Jewish Sukkot holiday or the feast of the Tabernacles in 2015. HAZEM BADER/AFP/Getty Images

There is also evidence that extremist militant group ISIS is using DJI Phantom drones, according to a 2016 report from the Network for Social Change hosted by Oxford Research Group.

Flying in local data mode means that the DJI apps will not update maps or geofencing information and won’t be able to livestream videos to YouTube, among other performance limitations.

DJI also added that it does not collect or have access to user flight logs, photos or videos unless the user chooses to share that data with DJI servers.

Honduran Army soldiers fly drones as part of the presidential security in Tegucigalpa in 2015.  ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP/Getty Images

DJI is not the only company that has shared data with Chinese authorities, which according to the New York Times, is required of all companies doing business there. Apple said it received 1,005 requests for data in the second half of 2015 from Chinese authorities and supplied data 66% of the time. And in the U.S., Apple received 4,000 requests for data from authorities during the same period and provided data 80% of the time.

DJI’s local data mode is expected to become available in the next several weeks.

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