Fake News Risk and The Chinese Drone Security Threat

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This is an age that demands transparency from journalists. It is also an age where partisans have elevated accusations of secret agendas, concealed bias and deliberate falsification by the media to a concert pitch.

So I’d like to talk not about what we did tell you in 2017—examples of some of our most-viewed, risk-related stories are linked at the bottom sections of today’s Risk Review newsletter. Instead, I’ll give you an update on a decision we made that affected what you have not yet seen in ENR and on ENR.com.

Two months ago an unusual story popped up.

A  Los Angeles employee of the Dept. of Homeland Security had written a long memo in August arguing that Chinese-made drones used widely in the U.S. are an information security vulnerability related to critical infrastructure.  The memo, a product of the the Special Agent in Charge Intelligence Program, warned that DJI Science and Technology, far and away the market leading maker of commercial drones used the U.S., “is providing U.S. critical infrastructure and law enforcement data to the Chinese government” for both military and business purposes.

Numerous details in the memo made sense and showed a lot of reading about drones and how they are used. But the memo also contained errors, according to DJI’s pointed denial of the charges in the memo, including the statement that DJI does not access its customers flight logs, photos or videos “unless customers actively upload and share them with us.”

That may not be exactly right. The default setting is apparently for the cloud upload and you have to turn it off.

The memo accused the Shenzen-based drone maker of dumping its products in the U.S. to monopolize market share—a debatable point. The memo also noted that the U.S. Army had in August issued a memo instructing some of its units to discontinue the Use of DJI drones due to “cyber vulnerabilities.” That point is confirmed.

The New York Times did eventually run the story without resolving all the issues related to it. That story triggered even more coverage than the memo had already received in the drone industry and tech news websites. We felt that the story at this point had more to do with economic nationalism than a real threat to our many readers who already are using drones and coping with challenges related to cloud-based security. So we let it go by and will watch for any more information on this topic.

Use the links and see for yourself whether we’ve made the right decision.