The Biden administration has purchased 27 drones from a Chinese company that was flagged under the Trump administration as providing critical infrastructure and law enforcement data to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
First reported by Axios on Sept. 22 via documents received from IPVM, a paid video surveillance industry information outlet, the U.S. Secret Service spent slightly less than $13,000 purchasing Da Jing Information (DJI) Mavic 2 Pro and Phantom 4 Drones through a Florida-based retailer.
The deal was approved by Shauntynee Penix of the Department of Homeland Security, according to the document.
Axios also says the FBI also purchased 19 DJI drones at a cost of almost $60,000 from a company in New York just days earlier.
In August of 2017, U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement issued an intelligence bulletin warning it had “moderate confidence” that DJI “is providing U.S. critical infrastructure and law enforcement data to the Chinese government.”
The bulletin noted DJI began prospecting U.S. companies in 2015, and by 2017 had secured deals with “at least ten large companies and organizations operating in the railroad, utility, media, farming, education, and federal law enforcement sectors” to purchase its equipment.
The most frequent uses noted for the equipment were “mapping land, inspecting infrastructure, conducting surveillance, and monitoring hazardous materials.”
ICE said the drones have to be operated through Android apps created by DJI, which “automatically tag GPS imagery and locations, register facial recognition data even when the system is off, and access users’ phone data.”
The agency also warned the apps “capture user identification, e-mail addresses, full names, phone numbers, images, videos, and computer credentials.”
“Much of the information collected includes proprietary and sensitive critical infrastructure data, such as detailed imagery of power control panels, security measures for critical infrastructure sites, or materials used in bridge construction.”
The apps automatically uploaded what was captured to cloud servers in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and mainland China.
In October of 2019, The Wall Street Journal reported the Interior Department had grounded its entire fleet of 800 drones, all of which were Chinese made or had made-in-China parts. The Journal said, “Last year, Interior Department officials executed more than 10,000 drone flights as part of its job to manage more than 500 million acres of U.S. land. In 2018, officials used drones to locate and help rescue a Hawaii resident trapped by lava flows.”
Meanwhile, in December of 2020, the outgoing Trump administration added DJI to its Commerce Department Entity List, which prevented U.S. companies from supplying DJI with parts or carrying its equipment.
In April of 2020, National Pulse reported that DJI had “gifted” 100 drones to U.S. “police, fire, and public safety organizations” to “fight COVID-19.” The outlet reported the devices had been used to surveil U.S. citizens under pandemic pretexts.
“If you have a 103 fever, that’ll come in handy letting us know at a glance: ‘Are you someone who possibly has the virus?’ ‘Do we need to make sure you have extra precautions?” said Daytona Police drone unit chief Sergeant Tim Ehrenkaufer in a statement.
On Aug. 31, Reps. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) and Gus Bilirakis (R-Fl), Chair and Ranking Member respectively of the House Consumer Protection and Commerce Subcommittee and members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, wrote to Department of Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, asking the Biden administration to maintain DJI’s Trump-era status on the Entity List.
“Reporting over the past few years suggests that DJI drones may have been used by Chinese security forces in Xinjiang engaged in human rights abuses. Prior to reporting in 2020, the DJI website outlined a deal for ‘strategic cooperation’ to provide police drones to the public security bureau of Xinjiang,” noted the letter.
The duo said they were concerned DJI had cornered the U.S. market, noting the Chinese firm currently controls 77 percent of U.S. market share, while its next closest rival controls only 4 percent.
Schakowsky and Bilirakis said DJI attained its competitive advantage through “extremely low pricing” by slashing prices by 70 percent in 2015, which drove three of their largest competitors out of the market.
“These tactics have harmed consumer choice while making DJI the default consumer drone provider in the United States. We respectfully request that the Department of Commerce investigate DJI’s pricing of its consumer drone products and its successful effort to drive competitors out of the market,” read the letter.