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WASHINGTON, DC- While Joe Biden apparently cozied up to the Chinese Communist Party in his shady business dealings with his son Hunter, we are now seeing a disturbing trend taking hold in the U.S. as hundreds of so-called “recreational drones” manufactured by Chinese company DJI have found their way into restricted airspace around Washington, D.C., Politico reports.
According to the report, hundreds of Chinese-manufactured drones have ended up in the skies over Washington, DC. While the drones are allegedly designed with “geofencing” restrictions which are designed to keep them outside sensitive locations, there are simple workarounds which enable users to bypass those restrictions.
The existence of the Chinese drones is according to sources privy to meetings before the Senate Homeland Security, Commerce and Intelligence committees, federal officials and drone industry experts.
The Politico piece is based on anonymous sources, seven in total comprised of government officials, lawmakers, congressional staffers and contractors. Politico wrote the reasons for remaining anonymous is because the sources are not authorized to speak publicly about the discussions, some of which were classified.
While the sources do not believe the drones are being directed by the Chinese communist government, the violation of restricted airspace marks a new chapter in users being able to use the somewhat inexpensive, but rather sophisticated drones which are typically used for recreation and commerce.
The new report comes as Congress is discussing possibly enhancing current federal authorities in order to track the drones as possible security threats.
“This is part of a trend of commercial drones for potentially nefarious reasons,” Rachel Stohl, vice president of research programs at the Stinson Center, a think tank that tracks the global drone market, said.
“We’re seeing in conflict zones, in other theaters, the reliance and use of commercial drones.”
“These may be just innocent data collection—or really just looking around, seeing what’s happening—and not in a systemized way,” Stohl continued. “But the potential, of course, is that eventually they could be more dangerous.”
It is unknown what exactly Congress might do to address the threat posed by the drones. While some legislation has been introduced, few have made it to the committee level, Politico wrote.
Moreover, the limited authority currently enjoyed by non-defense federal agency is set to soon expire unless Congress votes to extend it. It is currently covered under the continuing resolution used to fund the federal government in lieu of actually approving a federal budget. That resolution expires on Dec. 16.
While the Chinese government may not be directly overseeing the swarm of unauthorized drones, DJI has received funding from investment entities owned by the Chinese government—which DJI has desperately tried to conceal.
Worse still, with the apparent ease which recreational users can evade flight restrictions, it isn’t a reach to suggest that the high-def cameras and other sensors might be easily hacked for intelligence gathering operations.
“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,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a recent interview.
“They’re manufactured in China or manufactured by a Chinese company, but they’ll put a sticker on it of some non-Chinese company that repackages it so you don’t even know that you’re buying it.”
He continued, “But anything that’s technological has the capability of having embedded, in the software or in the actual hardware, vulnerabilities that can be exploited at any given moment.”
DJI however denies any involvement with the Chinese communist government and says it has no control over what customers do once they purchase their drones.
“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,” said Arianne Burrell, communications manager for DJI Technology, Inc.
“But we do everything from our end to ensure that they do follow the regulations that are set out by their localities,” she continued.
The drone maker is the world’s largest manufacturer of personal and professional drones while its products account for most of the recreational drones flown in the U.S.
Both the government as well as security experts have long expressed concerns about Chinese communist ties to the drone maker, with the Pentagon banning purchase of Chinese-made drones in 2017.
The Department of the Interior, operator of the largest civilian drone fleet in the federal government, banned the use of DJI drones except in emergencies.
Sill, thousands of federal, state and local law enforcement agencies still rely heavily on DJI drones according to a 2020 study, Politico wrote.
That study showed public safety agencies in the states of California, Texas, Illinois, Wisconsin and Florida are heavy users of drones, with the majority of those being DJI drones.
Commercial drones use GPS for navigation and that prevents them from operating within Washington, D.C.’s restricted airspace. They also have instructions for users about the need to follow local regulations, however it is somewhat easy to bypass those restrictions some say.
“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,” a government contractor who has helped collect data for federal authorities said.
“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 DC that is a DJI-manufactured product has been hacked or manipulated to enable flight in these zones.”
Malicious actors might be able to take advantage of being able to easily bypass restrictions.
The contractor compared the potential threat as that of “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.”
The contractor warned that a sophisticated user might be able to “use a drone for industrial espionage or cyber-attacks.” Or it could be something as simple as someone using such a drone for access to wireless info in a home.
“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.
“Similarly, one could do that on 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.”
Politico noted that the federal government has accused DJI of having ties to the Chinese government, while public records indicate Beijing-backed individuals are among investors in the company. Those links were considered when the Pentagon decided to blacklist the drones.
Meanwhile Burrell, DJI’s communications manager denies the company has any ties to the Chinese government.
“We are a private company. We don’t take any money from the Chinese government,” she said.
She also said the company is committed to following US laws and regulations, claiming the company is “passionate about flight safety.”
According to the Federal Aviation Administration, there are over 870,000 drones currently registered in the United States, an amount that is three times that of piloted aircraft.
The FAA further estimates that by 2024, there will be some 2.3 million “unmanned aerial systems”—1.5 million recreational drones and model aircraft and 800,000 commercial drones—registered to fly in the U.S.
With the increase in drones has come an accompanying increase in drones being flown in restricted areas, including violating temporary flight restrictions or TFRs that are designed to protect the president.
Since 2018, the Secret Service has encountered “hundreds of drones” violating TFRs, according to Samantha Vinograd, acting assistant secretary of Homeland Security testifying before the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee.
In her testimony, she also warned that commercially available drones can “be used by hostile foreign intelligence agencies or criminals to collect intelligence and enable espionage, steal sensitive technology and intellectual property, and conduct cyber attacks against wireless devices or networks.”
“The potential implications can be significant for sensitive U.S. facilities, the defense industrial base, technology firms, and others,” she added.
Meanwhile in Washington, D.C., there have been a reported 100 or more incursions in the city’s airspace over a 45 day period, however sources speaking to Politico asked that specific numbers, locations, and frequency of the incursions not be reported for security reasons.
For example this past summer, one such incursion resulted in flights into and out of DC’s Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport being halted.
“There are a lot more drones flying in our airspace than you would expect,” the contractor said.
“You’ll see hundreds of them over that same time period but the biggest difference is obviously the national capital region is the most secure air space in the world,” they continued.
The so-called Special Flight Rules Area around the nation’s capital consists of a 55-mile ring that starts at Reagan National. Any user requesting to fly inside the area must obtain a waiver from the FAA.
The agency has implemented a number of additional steps to detect drones to ensure they do not interfere with commercial aircraft or otherwise pose safety hazards, Politico wrote.,
For example, the agency adopted a “remote identification rule” lasts year that requires drones be identifiable with a form of “digital license plate,” designed to assist law enforcement agencies “find the control station when a drone appears to be flying in an unsafe manner or where it is not allowed to fly,” the FAA said.
The FAA, in addressing incursions above sensitive federal buildings, said while the agency is responsible for managing that restricted airspace, it is the Secret Service that is charged with defending it.
“Due to the need to maintain operational security, the U.S. Secret Service does not comment on the means, methods or resources used to conduct our protective operations,” a Secret Service spokesperson told Politico.
Congress has become increasingly concerned about the use of drones and the potential threat to national security.
In February, Rubio introduced a bill to add DJI to a Federal Communications Commission list designating the company as a national security threat.
That would restrict the company’s drones’ ability to link to U.S. telecommunications systems.
The bill has gone nowhere in Congress, likely because Senate Democrats are more concerned about things such as codifying gay marriage.
Rubio proposed the measure after a report that DJI was attempting to conceal its funding by the Chinese government. Rubio, in partnership with some Democrats has likewise proposed legislation to prohibit U.S. government entities from using federal funds to purchase Chinese-made drones. That legislation has also hit a brick wall.
Politico wrote that Democrat Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich), chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee helped author a bipartisan bill in July that would expand the authority of the Departments of Homeland Security and Justice, as well as state and local law enforcement authorities, to detect and counter drones which may present a national security threat.
That bill would also create a database of “security-related” incidents involving unmanned aerial systems within the U.S.
Some however worry that a nationwide drone tracking system might present First Amendment issues. For example the American Civil Liberties Union, which was absent as COVID restrictions that violated a number of constitutional amendments went unchallenged by the group, claims the proposal violates the right to privacy, among other rights.
The group argues that “such a system threatens to erase any possibility of anonymous operation of drones so that, for example, an activist wishing to record corporate malfeasance or police actions at a protest [always after the police, the ACLU] might be targeted after the fact, or chilled before it.”
However, with the federal government’s current authorities to counter drones set to soon expire, the Biden administration and other federal authorities are urging Congress to act.
“We have located hundreds of drones that have been acting in violation of federal law each time, and as the threat continues to grow, we’re investigating even as we speak several incidents, even within the U.S., of attempts to weaponize drones with homemade [improvised explosive devices],” FBI Director Christopher Wray told Peters’ committee on Nov. 17.
“That is the future that is here now, and this authority desperately needs to be reauthorized.”
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