In the world of toys, nothing beats a flying drone. Truly a product of the 2010s, these miniature helicopters have changed the way people imagine flight. What’s more, many drones are smartphone-ready, making it easy for anyone to take to the skies and get a real “bird’s eye view” of the world below them.
Despite their popularity in both consumer and professional fields, drones have recently fallen under scrutiny from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The government has noticed concerning patterns of data use coming from Chinese-made drones — and they’re sounding the alarms for American drone owners to take a closer look at their favorite aerial robots.
If you own a drone with components made in China, you may want to think twice before connecting it to your smartphone or device. Once your data is in hands overseas, there’s no way of knowing how it will be used.
Why are Chinese-made drones under fire from the U.S. government?
In a recent alert from the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, Chinese drone components were singled out as part of a potentially dangerous data collection effort.
According to the release, many drones feature parts that can “share information on a server” based in China. Under Chinese law, all companies and entities within the People’s Republic of China must be cooperative with intelligence agencies and their activities — which makes data collection especially risky for consumers.
Right now, 80% of drones sold in the U.S. come from a Chinese company named DJI, which is based in the manufacturing city of Shenzhen. This same company was singled out by U.S. intelligence in 2017 for specifically collecting data from drones used by government and law enforcement officials.
This analysis may seem startling, but the government has reason to be concerned. The U.S. and China regularly accuse each other of industrial espionage, and there is currently an effort to ban products made by Huawei for similar alleged connections to Chinese intelligence.
With nation-state backed hackers becoming a pervasive global threat, these precautions can protect private information that’s critical to national security — as well as the private data of individual consumers.
What can I do if my drone was made in China?
If you have a Chinese-made drone, you don’t have to panic just yet. In previous intelligence-gathering incidents, the primary targets tended to be involved in politics and law enforcement — meaning the average citizen is probably not worth bothering with.
Even still, drones made by DJI feature settings that let you enable what data is shared between your device and your drone. Both Android and iOS allow you to adjust privacy settings for any app you download — including control apps for specific drone models.
Drones are popular enough that this alert will probably fly under the radar for most users. But knowing the data threats that are out there can play a critical role in protecting your privacy.
If only we could enforce the same kind of attention on data collectors in our own country.