DJI drones: 'Cyber vulnerabilities' prompt blanket US Army ban

Thou shalt not use Chinese flying machines, orders general

US boxing glove, photo via Shutterstock

The US Army has issued a global order banning its units from using drones made by Chinese firm DJI, citing “cyber vulnerabilities”.

The memorandum, issued by the US Army’s Lieutenant General Joseph Anderson, orders all US Army units with DJI products to immediately stop using them.

“Due to increased awareness of cyber vulnerabilities associated with DJI products, it is directed that the US Army halt use of all DJI products,” the memo read.

In the memo, soldiers are also ordered to remove all batteries and storage media from their DJI drones and await further instructions.

DJI told The Register: “We are surprised and disappointed to read reports of the US Army’s unprompted restriction on DJI drones as we were not consulted during their decision. We are happy to work directly with any organization, including the US Army, that has concerns about our management of cyber issues.”

The firm's spokesman added: "We’ll be reaching out to the US Army to confirm the memo and to understand what is specifically meant by ‘cyber vulnerabilities’."

Drone blog sUAS News posted the text of the memo earlier this morning, along with a screenshot of what it says is the original document. sUAS News’ Gary Mortimer vouched for the memo’s authenticity to El Reg but declined to say how it had found its way to him.

The US Army told us late on Friday evening: "We can confirm that guidance was issued; however, we are currently reviewing the guidance and cannot comment further at this time."

Rumours that such a move were on the cards have been swirling for a while.

Bad news for DJI – and for governmental users around the world

Security concerns have been looming over DJI – Da-Jiang Innovation Corporation – and its products for a while. The company’s background, as its full name suggests, is 100 per cent Chinese and it is headquartered in Shenzhen, south-east China.

In April 2016 news went round the world that DJI drones were quietly beaming data back to Chinese state authorities, via DJI’s proprietary controller app. That data included aircraft telemetry and GPS location data.

All new users of DJI drones must register with the company, meaning it is trivial for it to identify users and what their likely uses of the drones are. The company appears to be co-operating with the US government already, judging by its imposition of no-fly zones in Iraq and Syria during a US-backed military offensive. Irritated hackers later modified DJI's firmware to allow flights outside of these no-fly zones, bypassing software-imposed performance limitations.

That the US Army would ban use of all DJI products across its 1.4 million personnel is surprising. More or less all modern consumer-grade technology is insecure, to a lesser or greater extent. Nonetheless, ease of use, a relatively low price point (something DJI prides itself on, to the point that nascent US rival 3D Robotics found itself unable to compete with DJI in the drone hardware market) and availability tends to trump security concerns.

This happens in particular at cash-strapped state agencies looking for a cheap and easy way to replace expensive capabilities – such as Devon and Cornwall Police raising a drone surveillance unit as an alternative to deploying the force helicopter at a cost of thousands of pounds. ®

Update

A DJI spokesman from America also got in touch with us late on Friday evening (3 August) to dispute our assertion that DJI beams sensitive data back to China. He pointed us to a statement issued by the firm last year, which says: "Some recent news stories have claimed DJI routinely shares customer information and drone video with authorities in China, where DJI is headquartered. This is false. A junior DJI staffer misspoke during an impromptu interview with reporters."

We understand that DJI does demand a name and email address upon registration but doesn't verify these things. We also understand, from sources outside the company, that certain parts of DJI's code suggest some kind of remote phoning-home capability has been written in, if not yet activated or used.


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