In late 2017, it was claimed that DJI (a very popular Chinese drone company) was working with the Chinese government to spy on the United States via their drones, or their drone controllers, which are owned by many Americans. This claim was made by the Los Angeles Office of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Bureau, which cited "moderate confidence" in their findings. This led the military to discontinue the use of DJI drones.

My question is - What specific information could be gleaned from these drones? I would presume navigational data, but perhaps video and audio could be recorded? The data that was collected, what benefit would it provide to China?

Regarding the above, my only assumption would be that the Chinese could track military operations that DJI drones were used in, but I'm not sure if this is accurate, or the only potential purpose. I'd be appreciative of any well-sourced answer.

LA-ICE Analysis

  • $\begingroup$ Moderation can move it to Skeptics SE $\endgroup$ – jean Oct 25 '18 at 20:46
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    $\begingroup$ @jean This isn't a "skeptics" thing, nor is it a conspiracy theory. It's a legitimate question I have, as this DHS memo has been referenced in many discussions in my industry (UAVs), in the past year. $\endgroup$ – M28 Oct 25 '18 at 20:51
  • $\begingroup$ @Matt. Completely agree, so I voted to reopen. It’s a technical question about aircraft. If it’s off topic, there’s something wrong with Aviation Stack Exchange, not something wrong with your question. $\endgroup$ – Penguin Oct 27 '18 at 3:28
  • $\begingroup$ @Penguin I think that the "what benefit would it provide to China" part is definitely not on topic here (or anywhere on SE, for that matters), so I would consider removing it before reopening $\endgroup$ – Federico Oct 27 '18 at 7:30

I doubt anything was gleaned per se, but there was recognized a significant security risk here and the military discontinued the use of the produce for fear of integral malware which could give an unfriendly foreign power a readily available means to spy on other nations.

If you have large numbers of these drones in operation all over the United States and other nations of interest equipped with a GPS receiver, and they make use of a controller linked to a smartphone or other device with internet access, you now effectively have an unwitting air force of spy aircraft operating within your target's airspace where the information transmitted from the drone is readily accessible to intelligence agencies within China. It probably cannot gather sensitive national security information, but these kinds of drones could be used to uncover non-classified government or military activities which could be of use to Chinese data analysts. We use to do this on a regular basis using spy satellites over Russia and Eastern Europe and thinking several levels ahead, considering how interference with more mundane activities could have a real impact on.

Analysts in China can glean through users until they find ones doing something of interest. People operating drones near military installations and ranges, etc can be useful and their video can be analyzed e.g. a kid in Las Vegas who lived near Nellis AFB may have his drone targeted when he/she flies it. If the video captures images of the airbase, analysts can look at day to day differences for things like base maintenance, vehicles in the motorpool, movement of aircraft on the flightline, etc. and the data could be used to predict patterns of behavior, operations protocol, etc. that can be useful to military intelligence. It's no wonder the US military stopped using DJI products for that reason.

  • $\begingroup$ This is nonsense because all the aparatus to get a army of analysts and processing all the data (not to say sending the data by phone) is a lot more expensive than send a couple of agents to play themselves with a drone near a military base (on the same foot any civil can do) $\endgroup$ – jean Oct 25 '18 at 20:23
  • $\begingroup$ @jean From a data analytics point of view, it would be trivial once you actually have access to the data, especially with the ability of AI and general content filters to only show critical/important drone feeds/data. Similar to how thousands of people across the world are employed solely to push propaganda on social media. $\endgroup$ – M28 Oct 25 '18 at 20:25
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    $\begingroup$ Social media propaganda is a billionaire business niche and feeds on bits of data very easy to auto process and most important uses a well know network infrastructure. It's not easy to send a big amount of data like that without nobody noticing. ISP/telephony/power users can be first one to get the rogue big stream of data $\endgroup$ – jean Oct 25 '18 at 20:36
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    $\begingroup$ Not necessarily. It may not require an army of people, just people or robots which can sift through known locations of drones and flight paths that routinely take place over or near areas of interest and these can be scrutinized on a regular basis. Malware can be imbedded in apps which can work with foreign intelligence organizations and be preset to use the drone's resources to send back data during opportune times and can be quickly filtered using software designed for the role. It would not require a warehouse of techs watching every drone that flies. $\endgroup$ – Carlo Felicione Oct 25 '18 at 20:50

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