Federal funds are being used to buy drones and drone detection equipment from DJI, a Chinese drone company that maintains control over data created and compiled by their products. Some of the details of these drone acquisitions were buried on government websites, while other aspects of these programs only came to light after I submitted a series of Freedom of Information Act requests to emergency management departments across the country. These programs indicate an ongoing tolerance among state and federal officials for having Chinese-made technology all but spying on American citizens and public safety officials.
America’s cold war with China has been heating up. New export controls, calls to ban social media applications like TikTok, and rising concerns over Chinese companies buying American farmland, are signs that some lawmakers are now making it a priority to counter Chinese influence in critical sectors of the U.S. economy. Given the intensifying strategic rivalry between Washington and Beijing, the use of Chinese drone fleets by American law enforcement arguably poses an immediate security risk to American citizens. At the very least, it represents a significant vulnerability.
DJI is not as well known as other Chinese companies with ties to the Chinese Communist Party, such as the telecom giant Huawei, but it deserves to be. For one thing, DJI is on the “Chinese military companies” list maintained by the Department of Defense as a result of the company’s work with China’s military, the People’s Liberation Army. Furthermore, there is no such thing as a fully private company in China. Following the country’s 2017 National Intelligence Law, “any organization or citizen shall support, assist, and cooperate with state intelligence work according to law,” mandating Chinese companies to work with the country’s authorities. While drones have many commercial applications, from herding animals to taking wedding photos, they are still essentially military weapons that were pioneered and developed to perform reconnaissance and surveillance on the battlefield.
This makes it even more concerning that DJI retains access and control over the location data of every single drone it sells, giving the company the power to fully restrict where drones fly with no restraints—a capability illustrated during the Russian-Ukrainian war, when the company refused requests by the Ukrainian government to apply geofences that would have prevented the drones from flying inside Ukraine.
DJI’s drone detection product, AeroScope, which “rapidly identifies [drone] communication links, gathering information such as flight status, paths, and other information in real-time,” also raises security concerns. While DJI had initially claimed that AeroScope’s signals were encrypted, last year the company was forced to admit that they were not actually secure, and that anyone with a little technical know-how could access detailed information on where and when the company’s drones had been flying. This capability, too, has played a role in the Russian-Ukrainian war: One group within the Armed Forces of Ukraine has even speculated that DJI is using these technologies to provide Russia with a military advantage.
In short, DJI is not a company the United States should do business with, which raises the question why law enforcement agencies across the country have purchased equipment from DJI using FEMA funds. Police departments in California have purchased nearly $100,000 in drone equipment from DJI using these grants. In Florida, police departments applied for $270,000 in funding to purchase DJI’s AeroScope drone detection software.
These transactions are mostly kept from public view, with the exception of a 2019 purchase made by the government of Massachusetts, which announced that it spent $235,000 on AeroScope equipment with Homeland Security grant money. They ultimately received eight AeroScope antennas to track drones flying across Massachusetts.
To know about DJI purchases from other states, however, required FOIA record requests from every local government agency across the country. Surveys of drone purchases by law enforcement agencies show that a substantial majority were DJI drones. If we assume that most police departments that bought drones since 2017 purchased them from DJI, we can estimate how many hundreds of thousands of dollars U.S. taxpayers have put toward bringing a Chinese government aligned surveillance platform into America: Washington, D.C., and its surrounding counties spent $420,000 on drones in 2010-21; in Texas, around $142,000 was spent on drones; in Washington state, police departments spent roughly $322,000 on drones. Including California and Florida, the total comes to roughly $1.4 million. This is a relatively small sum for state governments, but even over a million dollars is not an amount we should be giving to a CCP-affiliated company.
And this is only the spending that we know of. Several states still have yet to respond to my FOIA requests. Even worse, several states have told me that they do not have detailed data on how their states spent these grants over the past 10 years. Some states, for example, only had data on total spending per year. Even worse are states like Texas, where the Texas Homeland Security Act allows the state to hide spending due to vague security concerns.
The purchase of DJI drones with these FEMA grants is alarming but not surprising. The history of these grant programs is filled with dubious purchases and an overall lack of transparency. These drones were purchased through FEMA’s Homeland Security Grant Program, which includes two programs created after 9/11 focusing on funding terrorism preparedness. While the cause is commendable, these post-9/11 programs are notorious for misspending, from the merely wasteful (police departments using grants to buy snow-cone machines) to the harmful, as when police departments purchased militarized equipment such as armored vehicles—often causing alarm and fear among the citizenry—despite the fact that those police departments were in areas of declining crime.
In 2021, FEMA released guidance on using agency funds to buy DJI drones, stating that there was no prohibition on the usage of FEMA funds to buy Chinese drones while acknowledging data privacy concerns and advising buyers to figure out secure ways to store their data. More prudent, however, would be to ban the usage of these funds to buy DJI drones altogether. Indeed it’s already the rule within other parts of the government. For many years, police departments used a grant program within the Department of Justice to buy Chinese drones until the DOJ banned the practice in 2020. The ban was enacted due to concerns that Chinese drones could be vulnerable to control from an outside actor.
Other parts of the federal government have also enforced bans. In 2021, the General Services Administration (an independent agency of the U.S. government specializing in procurement) prohibited the agency from buying drones from Chinese companies. The GSA requires contracts for drones to be verified as secure through an internal drone security program run by a part of the Department of Defense.
Apart from the obvious dangers and inherent absurdity of American security agencies outsourcing sensitive defense and surveillance functions to China, there is also something drearily predictable about the practice. Critics have pointed out that FEMA grants are used to fund questionable purchases.
And a central issue is that America, with all its spending on military technology, has failed to produce a superior product. While buying the Chinese equipment poses concerns, DJI drones have more features and are cheaper than competitors. The Department of Interior even conceded that there are no good alternatives to DJI.
This raises the question of what American police departments and other public safety groups should replace their DJI drones with. A strategy of promoting the manufacturing of commercial drones in the United States would be optimal, but this may be an issue where things have to get worse before they get better, as groups wean off of using Chinese drones. But if lawmakers want to get serious about protecting U.S. industries from Chinese surveillance, banning DJI drones offers a strong place to start.
Lars Erik Schönander (@LarsESchonander) is a policy technologist at Lincoln Network.