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U.S. Interior Department grounds 800-strong drone fleet over security fears

The U.S. Department of the Interior (DoI) has grounded all 800 of its drones over security concerns, the Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday.

The multi-rotor, remotely controlled copters are used by the department for a range of tasks, including land and forest monitoring, dam inspections, and assisting efforts to tackle wildfires and other natural disasters.

But this week, DoI Secretary David Bernhardt reportedly ordered his personnel to stop flying the drones — except in emergencies — amid fears that the Chinese-made machines could be used to send sensitive data back to China.

In a memo seen by the Journal, Bernhardt said his department is currently conducting a security investigation into the capabilities of the camera-equipped internet-connected drones, and it would make a final decision about whether to use the machines once it’s complete.

It’s an issue that has been rumbling on for some time within the U.S. government, with lawmakers currently discussing a bill that has the potential to prevent federal agencies from buying Chinese-made drones.

In May 2019, the Cyber-security and Infrastructure Security Agency said it had “strong concerns” regarding the increasing number of Chinese-made drones being used by U.S. government agencies, while in 2017, the Department of Homeland Security claimed that leading drone maker DJI, which is headquartered in the Chinese city of Shenzhen, was “selectively targeting government and privately-owned entities within these sectors to expand its ability to collect and exploit sensitive U.S. data.”

DJI has always vehemently denied engaging in any such practice.

“We have worked with the DoI to create a safe and secure drone solution that meets their rigorous requirements, which was developed over the course of 15 months with DoI officials, independent cybersecurity professionals, and experts at NASA,” DJI said in a statement to the Journal this week.

In a bid to ease the concerns of those worried about security, and apparently in response to a U.S. Army decision in 2017 to stop using DJI drones because of apparent “cyber vulnerabilities,” DJI two years ago launched a Local Data Mode to provide, in its own words, “enhanced data privacy assurances for sensitive government and enterprise customers.” It’s not certain if a specific event or discovery prompted the DoI’s sudden decision this week to ground its 800 drones, but evidently it is no longer happy with DJI’s assurances.

The issue once again throws the spotlight on the ongoing trade tensions between the U.S. and China that have also seen Chinese tech giant Huawei dragged into the fray over similar security concerns.

We’ve reached out to DJI for comment on the DoI’s decision and will update this piece when we hear back.

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