security vulnerabilities DJI drones

How much do DJI’s security vulnerabilities actually matter?

How much do DJI’s alleged security vulnerabilities actually matter to public safety officials?

For most law enforcement agencies, the answer is: not much. At least, that’s according to a special report released by Droneresponders, a non-profit organization focusing on drones for public safety.

Droneresponders surveyed nearly 300 public safety professionals using drones between August and September 2019 via an online questionnaire. And while more than half of respondents said they were either “somewhat concerned” or “extremely concerned” about alleged security vulnerabilities surrounding Chinese drone technology, more than half of respondents also stated that their department or agency intended to purchase a DJI brand drone within the next year.

Here’s that nugget from their questionnaire:

  • 44% of public safety remote pilots indicated that they are not concerned about potential security vulnerabilities such as Chinese “spyware”
  • 33% of operators are somewhat concerned
  • 23% are extremely concerned.

DJI has come under fire by U.S. officials who claim it could send sensitive drone data to the Chinese government. Much of the uproar started after a memo from the U.S. Army directed all personnel to cease use of DJI drones over security concerns. And a spring 2019 note from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security titled “Chinese Manufactured Unmanned Aircraft Systems” indicated that it had “strong concerns” that Chinese-made drones were stealing data.

security vulnerabilities DJI drones
A DJI Mavic 2 at the Los Angeles Fire Department. ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

DJI has denied that it has sent sensitive US data to the Chinese government, but has stopped short of saying it’s out of the question.

“DJI Products and Services connect to servers hosted in the United States and China,” according to the privacy policy on DJI’s site. “We may transfer your data from the U.S. and China to other countries or regions in connection with storage and processing of data, fulfilling your requests, and providing the services associated with DJI Products and Services.”

But despite the fact that the majority of respondents are at least somewhat concerned, everyone seems to be using DJI drones nonetheless.

According to the 2019 Fall Public Safety UAS Survey from Droneresponders, 73% of public safety agencies or organizations claim to be operating a DJI Mavic drone. 47% of respondents reported using a DJI Matrice series, 46% the DJI Phantom series, and 37% the DJI Inspire series (respondents could answer multiple times if their departments had multiple drones).

And those DJI drone purchases aren’t stopping anytime soon. 55% of survey respondents said their department of agency intend to purchase a DJI-brand drone within the next calendar year.

security vulnerabilities DJI drones
The FLIR C360 Muve gas detector on a DJI Matrice 210 drone. ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

In mid-September, a a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers proposed the American Security Drone Act of 2019, legislation that would ban drone
purchases by federal agencies from China, as well as other countries identified with national security concerns. While that legislation could give a leg up to U.S. drone companies and put a damper on DJI’s business, some fear it could hurt the broader drone industry, as well as other industries (like public safety) that rely on drones, given that there are so few non-DJI drone options (especially at lower price points).

For customers concerned about the chance of data being transmitted into the wrong hands, there is just a small contingent of competing drone companies that are offering solutions. Yuneec, perhaps DJI’s largest competitor in the consumer space, went so far to call out this fact in marketing materials for their new Mantis G drone.

“Like all Yuneec drones, the Mantis Q does not transfer any video, photo, or telemetry data to external servers,” a statement on Yuneec’s site states.

But Yuneec still hasn’t gained widespread adoption. Only 12% of respondents in the 2019 Fall Public Safety UAS Survey said they were using Yuneec drones.

2 Comments

  • CantYouSee says:

    If you live in a bubble, then no, nothing to see here.

    If, however, you look at what’s going on in Hong Kong, what’s happening to the Uyghurs in china, look at what the media in the US covers and more often what they don’t provide coverage on, what just happened with the NBA and Blizzard Software, what Google was building for the chinese government before they got caught and the whole of military, economic and industrial espionage perpetrated by the chinese and North Korea, the modernization (at our expense) of the chinese military and the attempted subversion of maritime rule by building an island to try to claim ownership of a sea, and so on and so on, then how can anyone not be concerned with having a platform flying all over the country providing free telemetry and photographs of interesting places, to a foreign government.

    All the more alarming is the fact that 77% of public safety personnel that responded apparently feel little or no concern.

    Talk about blatant subversion of a democratic state on a national scale.

  • Stoney Truett says:

    I have long had issues with DJI, not because of workmanship because the do make an excellent product, but because they take it upon themselves to regulate U.S. airspace under the premise of being seen to be doing something to keep operators from flying drones where DJI believes they should not be flown.
    My complaint: IT IS NOT THEIR PLACE TO REGULATE THE AIRSPACE OF ANOTHER COUNTRY! That basically means that we are not purchasing their products but renting or leasing them if “they” control where we can fly them.
    I am a pilot and I fly my drones at airports to document traffic numbers for the airports into which we fly. I am a certificated drone pilot and I know where I may and may not fly. The FAA states the “we” do not need permission or authority to fly in Class G airspace and that includes most uncontrolled hard surface and grass airports in this country. The last attempt I made at flying my Mavic was at a rural grass field in upstate South Carolina I got the “you are in a NO FLY ZONE, you can not take off, and that was the last straw. I have since stopped using the DJI drones and purchased a Parrott ANAFI and it is working quite well. It is smaller and quieter that the mavics and has the same video and still quality as the new models.
    I have wondered if DJI has been feeding data to their government since they monitor and record every flight their drones make but regulating where I am able to fly “my” drone is out of line.

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