There’s not much evidence backing U.S. officials’ claims, but civil rights advocates question whether police should be using drones at all.
THE NEW YORK CITY Police Department, the largest police department in the country, is continuing to use surveillance drones made by a Chinese company that the U.S. government has made moves to ban, labeling it a “national security threat” that may provide “U.S. critical infrastructure and law enforcement data to the Chinese government.”
The department’s drones were manufactured by Da Jiang Innovations, a Shenzhen-based company and the leading manufacturer of commercial drones worldwide. When it announced its drone program, the NYPD argued that the new technology would “undoubtedly help keep New Yorkers and officers safe.” It said that the drones would be used in search and rescue missions, hostage situations, hazardous material incidents, and to reach inaccessible crime scenes.
Hundreds of law enforcement agencies across the country have adopted the use of drones in recent years, with many of them purchasing DJI drones because of their affordability. As the technology has spread, civil rights advocates have raised concerns about its potential for mass surveillance and privacy violations. They have objected the use of drones at constitutionally protected events like protests and raised fears that drones might be used in connection to other technology, like facial recognition software. According to the NYPD’s drone policy, department drones “do not use facial recognition technologies and cannot conduct facial recognition analysis.” However, the policy adds, a “still image can be created from the recorded video images and may be used as a probe image for facial recognition analysis.”
Jerome Greco, an attorney at the Legal Aid Society’s Digital Forensics Unit, told The Intercept that the NYPD’s continued use of technology federal officials have repeatedly warned against raises questions about the department’s stated use of the drones.
“You have the NYPD on one hand, who use the excuse of national security and city security to consistently expand their surveillance technology, and yet you have the U.S. military and U.S. agencies who are charged with that security, saying that they don’t trust this tool that the NYPD is using,” Greco added. “It would seem unusual to me, considering how deeply connected the NYPD are to federal law enforcement agencies, especially after 9/11, for them to not have received some sort of warning.”
Sgt. Jessica McRorie, a spokesperson for the NYPD, did not directly answer questions about security concerns relating to DJI technology but wrote in an email to The Intercept that the department does not use drones to “conduct activities that would be of national security value.”
“I would say there’s no such thing as a good police drone, but some are still worse than others.”
Police critics also raised questions about the NYPD’s ability to protect data. Albert Cahn — the executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, or STOP, a group that advocates against mass surveillance — said the warnings about DJI are just one of many concerns around the NYPD’s handling of data the department gathers directly or in conjunction with private companies. “There’s a lot of uncertainty about their ability to protect the data they’re collecting on New Yorkers, and no clear reporting if that data is compromised,” said Cahn, pointing to a recent hack of the city’s Law Department.
The possibility that some of that data might end up in the hands of foreign governments is alarming, he added. “That can be a real risk to New Yorkers; and there are plenty of New Yorkers, including a lot of democracy activists, who have reason to be particularly fearful of the Chinese government,” he said. “I would say there’s no such thing as a good police drone, but some are still worse than others.”
DJI drones have become ubiquitous among both private citizens and public agencies largely because of the company’s competitive price. While critics question whether police agencies have a legitimate need for them, there is little question the technology has proven essential to other public agencies, like those working on public land management, which use them, for instance, to monitor wildfires.
The U.S. government’s warnings about DJI are not unique to the company but rather generalizable to other Chinese technology companies, Elsa Kania, a fellow with the technology and national security program at the Center for a New American Security, told The Intercept, pointing to the Chinese government’s interference with the country’s tech sector. China’s National Intelligence Law, she noted, includes a requirement that any Chinese company support the nation’s intelligence work, which essentially could set the stage for the government to demand that a company like DJI turn data over or interject vulnerabilities in its products in ways that could benefit the Chinese government. “It’s hard for DJI as a company to make the case that it is secure and credibly so and could not be subject to demands of the Chinese government and Communist Party when the CCP has been adamant that tech companies must obey the party,” Kania said.
There are few comparable alternatives for commercial drones, Kania added. “The fact that DJI drones are still used to this extent reflects a failure to identify and procure alternatives, or the fact that there aren’t American or other international companies that can provide the same capability that DJI can, at a decent price point.”
The Chinese government has long relied on surveillance technology to suppress dissent and target minorities internally. But while the national intelligence law does raise the possibility that the government might compel companies like DJI to turn over data or otherwise support Chinese national interests, there is no evidence that has happened. Still, U.S. officials — and anti-China hawks in particular — have shaped policy around this possibility over the past several years, amid increasing competition between the two countries.
In 2017, the Department of Homeland Security circulated an intelligence bulletin to law enforcement partners across the country warning that DJI, which was actively seeking clients among law enforcement agencies, might not be able to keep that data from the Chinese government. Earlier that year, the U.S. Army had also issued a similar warning, as well as a directive to “cease all use, uninstall all DJI applications, remove all batteries/storage media from devices.”
Some national security experts have argued that the threat assessments are theoretical and not informed by clear evidence.
In 2018, the Defense Department took the action further, issuing a ban on the purchase and use of all commercial off-the-shelf drones, regardless of manufacturer, due to cybersecurity concerns. Earlier this year, the Pentagon issued yet another memo reiterating that department officials believe DJI poses “potential threats to national security” — and refuting reports that DJI equipment had been cleared for purchase. The Defense and Homeland Security departments did not respond to requests for comment.
In 2019, Congress passed legislation specifically banning drones manufactured in China or with Chinese-made parts, prompting a host of federal agencies to stop using their drones. The U.S. Interior Department, which uses the technology to track wildfires and monitor dams, volcanoes, and wildlife across 500 million acres of U.S. land, grounded its entire fleet. The previous year, the department had conducted some 11,000 flights with its 800-drone fleet.
Then, two days before he left office, President Donald Trump issued an executive order imposing restrictions on the use of many foreign-made drones and encouraging the use of domestic ones. Earlier this year, the Senate passed a measure to impose a five-year ban on all U.S. government purchases of Chinese drones and parts.
DJI did not respond to a request for comment, but the company has consistently denied allegations that it feeds data to the Chinese government, and some national security experts have argued that the threat assessments are theoretical and not informed by clear evidence. “Under the previous administration, we saw a lot of alarmism and reactions against Chinese technology companies that were sometimes justified on a flimsy basis legally, or without robust evidence behind them,” said Kania. “If there is a real security concern that is serious, as there very well may be, then this reflects a failure of the U.S. government to raise awareness on and ensure implementation of restrictions on the use of DJI drones.”
Before the 2017 memos, DJI drones had been used widely by the U.S. government, including by federal agencies, the military, and more than 900 state and local law enforcement and emergency service departments. The lack of clarity and a uniform governmentwide policy has resulted in inconsistent responses to the warnings across public agencies. While some have heeded calls to discontinue using DJI drones, the U.S. Secret Service and the FBI have continued to buy and use DJI drones, Axios recently reported.
On the state and local level, it’s unclear how many police departments other than the NYPD continue to use DJI drones, but the five-year ban currently under review in Congress could prevent police departments that use the drones from accessing federal funding.
The NYPD announced the purchase of its DJI-made fleet in December 2018, more than a year after federal officials issued the first warnings about the company. The department touted the 14 drones as “cutting edge technology” that would enable “highly-trained cops to be even more responsive to the people we serve,” then-Police Commissioner James P. O’Neill said in a statement.
According to department data, the NYPD has deployed its drones dozens of times since it first acquired them. Greco, who has monitored the department’s drone use, noted that the drones were dispatched to large gatherings and protests like a Women’s Day march, a Pride parade, and a Puerto Rican Day parade. In its reports, the department said drones were used at such events for purposes such as monitoring “vehicular traffic and pedestrian congestion” or conducting “rooftop security observation.”
The NYPD has also dispatched drones to fly over police operations, for instance when dozens of officers in riot gear surrounded the residence of Derrick Ingram, a Brooklyn activist police had identified through facial recognition technology and images captured doing protests.
“A cheap drone can make surveillance much more effective and affordable.”
Civil rights advocates say there’s reason to question whether police should be using drones at all — considering their inherent potential to be used for mass surveillance. “A cheap drone can make surveillance much more effective and affordable,” said Kania. “There are quite legitimate concerns, not just for DJI but for the use of drones in policing in general, when it comes to civil liberties and privacy, the affordability of that surveillance, lowering the cost and making it much more accessible as a tool to law enforcement.”
That’s a more urgent concern to many New Yorkers than the possibility that NYPD data might end up in the hands of the Chinese government, said Greco, of Legal Aid. “The average New Yorker is more concerned about the NYPD versus what may leak back to China, and there’s a significant concern about the NYPD using these drones for spying on individuals, particularly at mass protests.”
A proposed bill currently on the table in the state Senate would impose stringent restrictions to the use of drones by law enforcement, including a prohibition on the use of drones at concerts, protests, and other constitutionally protected gatherings. Privacy advocates, like STOP, have called on lawmakers to go further: banning all police drones and prohibiting police from purchasing drone footage from private companies.