Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and Taipei, Taiwan – A United States government agency grounded its drone fleet over concerns China could use the unmanned aircraft for spying despite internal warnings that a ban would in fact increase security risks, documents obtained by Al Jazeera reveal.
The US Department of Interior (DOI) also disregarded warnings the ban could hamper efforts to fight wildfires, months before officials reported the restrictions were making fire-fighting more difficult and dangerous, the documents show.
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The DOI, which manages public lands and resources in the US, ordered the temporary grounding of drones made in China or containing Chinese parts in October 2019 amid deep suspicion of Chinese technology within the administration of former US President Donald Trump.
Then-Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt formalised the ban in January 2020 with an open-ended order grounding the DOI’s entire 810-strong fleet of unmanned aircraft systems (UAVs) – whose uses include responding to natural disasters, geological surveys and wildlife population monitoring – until “cybersecurity, technology and domestic production concerns are adequately addressed”.
The order, which followed years of warnings that drones made by firms such as Shenzhen-based DJI could be secretly sending data to Beijing, included exceptions for emergency uses, such as fighting wildfires and search-and-rescue missions.
But a DOI briefing about the drone programme, obtained under a freedom of information request, shows that officials at the time expressed concern that grounding the drones – almost all of which were Chinese-made or contained Chinese parts – would force the department to rely on contractors ill-equipped to guard against cybersecurity risks.
“Bureaus will likely resort to end product contracts to obtain data that would have been otherwise been [sic] obtained by DOI fleet UAS,” Mark Bathrick, the then-director of the Office of Aviation Services, said in the briefing document.
“The increased risk to the Department of this is that many commercial UAS vendors are using the same Chinese DJI drones as DOI, but without the custom built to DOI UAS security specification software, firmware and hardware present in DOI’s DJI drones.”
The briefing also said DOI staff responsible for fire-fighting operations had expressed concern that the inability to make planned purchases of new drones, train new drone operators and carry out preparedness flights would harm “preparations for the 2020 fire year”.
The DOI later acknowledged internally that the cancellation of drone purchases had reduced its ability to carry out controlled fires and put more human pilots in harm’s way during the 2020 fire season, according to a 2020 Financial Times report that cited an internal memo from the time.
The briefing obtained by Al Jazeera is dated October 30, 2019, the day after the initial DOI order, but the emails in the documents show that advice about the drawbacks of restricting drone purchases was requested on behalf of Bernhardt at least 12 days earlier.
Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists Project on Government Secrecy, said the DOI appeared to have “unwittingly tied itself into a policy knot, full of unintended consequences”.
“I suppose this can be understood as part of an ongoing reassessment of the economic and security challenges posed by China,” Aftergood told Al Jazeera.
“And if perceptions of the Chinese threat prove to be exaggerated, then in retrospect this will be considered a form of ‘moral panic’. But as of the 2019 order to ground Chinese-made drones, it seems that the dominant theme was confusion.”
Bernhardt, who returned to work in the private sector in 2021, said the exceptions he included in his order had addressed the concerns raised by some department officials.
“After looking at the material, I think it is safe to say that I am confident that the exemption in the order and the approval process that was developed by PMB [Office of Policy, Management and Budget] for use addressed the concerns you described in 2020,” Bernhard told Al Jazeera.
Bathrick, the former DOI official who wrote the briefing describing the potential risks of grounding the drone fleet, did not respond to requests for comment.
A DOI spokesperson did not respond to questions about whether grounding the drone fleet had resulted in the greater use of contractors or created security risks but said the department had updated its policy on drones, including protecting against “unacceptable risks”, last year following an extensive review.
Under the updated policy announced in October, the DOI banned future purchases of drones from “adversary countries”, while also allowing the resumption of non-emergency missions using the existing fleet after determining the risks could be mitigated to an “acceptable level”.
A DJI spokesperson rejected suggestions that its drones pose security risks.
“A vast number of government agencies in the United States continue to rely on and use DJI drones in their daily work,” a spokesperson told Al Jazeera.
“This includes a multitude of law enforcement partners and first responders, who know they can trust our products because they are safe and secure. Our cybersecurity/privacy practices have been substantiated by multiple independent third parties in the United States and elsewhere since 2017.”
Washington’s efforts to restrict Chinese companies have continued under President Joe Biden, who has ramped up the trade and tech war with China that started under Trump.
The US Defense Department (DoD) in October added DJI, which is the world’s biggest commercial drone manufacturer, to a blacklist of firms with alleged ties to the Chinese military.
In March, a bipartisan group of Senators introduced legislation that would prohibit all US federal agencies from buying drones manufactured or assembled in adversary countries, including China.