Drones take center stage in U.S.-China war on data collection

In video reviews of the latest drone models to his 80,000 YouTube subscribers, Indiana student Carson Miller does not appear to be an unwitting tool of Chinese spies.

Yet this is how the United States increasingly sees it, along with thousands of other Americans buying drones built by Shenzhen-based SZ DJI Technology Co, the world’s largest producer of unmanned aerial vehicles. . Miller, who bought his first DJI model in 2016 for $ 500 and now owns six, shows why the company controls more than half of the U.S. drone market.

“If tomorrow DJI was completely banned,” said the 21-year-old, “I’d be scared enough.”

Critics at DJI warn that the drone maker can funnel tons of sensitive data to Chinese intelligence agencies on everything from critical infrastructure like bridges and dams to personal information like heart rate and facial recognition. But for Miller, consumers face many more significant threats to their data privacy. “There are apps that follow you on your smartphone 24/7,” he said.

This attitude is a problem for American officials seeking to end DJI’s dominance in the United States. Earlier this week, the Biden administration blocked U.S. investment in the company, a year after President Donald Trump banned it from sourcing U.S. parts. Now lawmakers on both sides are considering a bill that would ban federal purchases of DJI drones, while a member of the Federal Communications Commission wants his products to be taken off the US market altogether.

In many ways, DJI has become the star child of a much larger national security threat: the Chinese government’s ability to obtain sensitive data on millions of Americans. In recent weeks, former senior officials in the Obama and Trump administrations have warned that Beijing could recover personal information from citizens of rival nations, while blocking data on China’s 1.4 billion people.

“Each new piece of information, in and of itself, is relatively unimportant,” Oona Hathaway, a Yale Law School professor who served in the Pentagon under President Barack Obama, wrote in Foreign Affairs, referring to surveillance and control technologies. “But combined, the pieces can give foreign adversaries an unprecedented glimpse into the personal lives of most Americans.”

According to Matt Pottinger, former deputy national security adviser to the Trump administration, Chinese President Xi Jinping has been way ahead of the West in realizing the importance of data to gain both economic and military advantage. “If Washington and its allies do not mount a strong response, Mr. Xi will succeed in dominating the summits of the future world power,” he wrote in a co-authored New York Times editorial last month.

The battle for data strikes at the heart of strategic US-China competition and has the potential to reshape the global economy over the coming decades, especially as everything from cars to yoga mats to toilets, transmits now data. Harnessing this information is both essential to dominate technologies such as artificial intelligence, which will drive the modern economy, and crucial to exploiting the weaknesses of strategic enemies.

Data security concerns “will be a defining issue for the next decade” as technological advances lead to “explosive demand” for ever more information, according to Paul Triolo, a former US government official specializing in security. global technology policy at risk. Advising Eurasia Group. The result, he added, is likely an almost complete bifurcation of the Internet, reflecting the values ​​of competing political systems.

“Democratic and authoritarian digital worlds will be built on vastly different hardware, with different standards and limited connection points,” said Triolo. “It will increase costs for companies operating in these two areas, reduce innovation and lead to geopolitical tensions, reduced trade and a much more complex world in which companies can operate. Other countries will be forced to choose sides in this division, and it will be painful and costly. “

Already, data security concerns are beginning to balkanize manufacturing supply chains and financial markets, fearing that governments will militarize information gleaned from smartphone apps, medical devices, and consumer products like drones. Policymakers in the United States and China are rushing to implement more measures to protect the data of their citizens.

Beijing has acted faster, passing laws to prevent user data from getting into the wrong hands while strengthening the government’s ability to control information held by private companies, as part of a larger crackdown. wide against its biggest tech companies.