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


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.

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.

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