A surge in drone activity in restricted airspace over sites such as the White House, the Capitol and the Pentagon in Washington has U.S. officials concerned about possible Chinese espionage, Politico reported Wednesday.
Hundreds of Chinese-made drones have been detected in D.C. no-fly zones in recent months, according to the report.
The Senate Homeland Security, Commerce and Intelligence committees have been briefed on the alarming situation by U.S. officials and drone industry experts, according to Politico, which cited “three people privy to the meetings.”
“Everybody is very concerned and trying to figure out what to do,” a government contractor who has helped to collect drone data for federal authorities told the outlet.
Recreational drones that have GPS capabilities are built with a technology referred to as geofencing that is supposed to prevent them from functioning within restricted airspace.
However, those software restrictions can be easily bypassed.
“There’s YouTube videos that could walk your grandparents through how to update the software on one of these drones to be non-detectable and to do a whole lot of other things — get rid of elevation ceilings, all kinds of stuff,” the contractor said, according to Politico.
“If you were to go buy a DJI drone at the store, it wouldn’t fly over airports or specific cities because of a specific no-fly zone. So, anything that we see in D.C. that is a DJI-manufactured product has been hacked or manipulated to enable flight in these zones.”
The contractor compared the possible situational threats to “an eight-year-old kid or an unsuspecting adult who got a DJI for Christmas and is unwittingly collecting data for somebody who could become a serious adversary.”
“A more sophisticated user can use a drone for industrial espionage or cyberattacks. One could land a drone on your house and start capturing all the wireless information that’s being broadcast out of your home,” the contractor said.
The contractor added that a similar situation could take place in regard to “a federal building, a power grid, or other critical infrastructure. And the reality is, people on the tech side always said, ‘look, at any point in time the Chinese can take control of a DJI that’s flying in the air.’”
DJI drones are the ones most commonly used in the United States, especially for recreational use.
The Washington Post reported in February that the company had tried to conceal the fact that it received funding from Chinese government-related entities.
Because of DJI’s ties to China, U.S. officials and security experts have expressed concerns about the possibility of drone usage for espionage, cyberattacks and other nefarious activities.
Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida is among them.
“Any technological product with origins in China or Chinese companies holds a real risk and potential of vulnerability that can be exploited both now and in a time of conflict,” Rubio, vice chairman of the Intelligence Committee, said, according to Politico.
“Hundreds of Chinese-manufactured drones have been detected in restricted airspace over Washington, D.C., in recent months, a trend that national security agencies fear could become a new means for foreign espionage” https://t.co/XCi8vunBxw
— Jonathan Lemire (@JonLemire) November 23, 2022
In fact, the Pentagon blacklisted DJI drones in October, according to the South China Morning Post.
However, Arianne Burrell, communications manager for DJI Technology Inc., denied the company has any financial ties to the Chinese government and said it has no control over what people do with the drones they purchase.
“Unfortunately, while DJI puts everything in place to identify and notify our customers about areas in which they can’t fly, we can’t control the end users’ behavior,” Burrell said, according to Politico.