Drones are one of the greatest tools of modern technology. In the hands of well-intentioned actors, drones have the potential to increase economic prosperity, protect communities, and save lives.
Drone technologies have applications in surveying, farming, insurance, transportation, law enforcement, search and rescue, construction, and much more. Quite literally, “the sky is the limit" for this tech.
Despite the enormous potential for good that drone technology carries, there are risks from bad actors. Recent national security reports have indicated that some drones in the United States are being exploited at varying levels by the Chinese government. These drones can operate as a type of “Trojan horse” for the Chinese intelligence apparatus.
Recent federal inquiries into Chinese drone manufacturing companies found questionable data-sharing practices. These practices subjected drone user data in the United States to potential use by the Chinese government for intelligence and cyber operations.
According to a Department of Homeland Security report, Chinese-manufactured drones are being used by the Chinese government to collect intelligence on key U.S. infrastructure and assets. For security reasons, the U.S. Army banned the use of drones that a large Chinese drone company manufactured. In January 2021, the U.S. General Services Administration announced that federal contracts could no longer be used to purchase Chinese-made drones. Likewise, the Department of the Interior grounded hundreds of drones in its fleet over similar security concerns.
In light of the Chinese government's communist policies, its indiscriminate collection of drone data from Chinese companies comes as little surprise. Companies based in China are required to directly funnel their data to the Chinese government in order to cooperate with state intelligence and espionage operations.
Under the Chinese National Intelligence Law implemented by the Chinese government in 2017: “All organizations and citizens shall support, assist, and cooperate with [Chinese] national intelligence efforts.” This mandate includes Chinese technology companies such as drone manufacturers.
While the federal government in Washington has already taken steps to protect national security related to this issue, state governments have yet to seize the initiative. This is no less true in Mississippi. Even though the federal government has imposed multiple bans on the use of Chinese drones by its agencies, Mississippi state and local entities have unwittingly continued to purchase Chinese drones with taxpayer dollars. An analysis of Federal Aviation Administration records by the Mississippi Technology Institute found that Chinese companies manufactured 70 percent of all registered government drones in Mississippi.
There are several possible implications if Mississippi government drone data were to fall into the hands of the Chinese government:
Many government drones have been used to survey critical infrastructure such as road systems and utility infrastructure. Services critical to health, safety, and industry are also at risk. Data gathered by Mississippi government drones could prove invaluable to Chinese state actors in many scenarios, ranging from intelligence gathering to cyberattack planning.
Chinese drones have been found to have embedded data collection functions inside the drone operation software. A cybersecurity analysis conducted on a leading Chinese drone software package found that the software allowed data transmission to third parties behind “the Great Firewall of China, where it is accessible to the Chinese government.” This carries unique concerns for Mississippi government drones since they often connect to government networks containing sensitive information. Additionally, this compromised drone software could serve as a potential “backdoor” for hackers to access sensitive government information.
Perhaps most significantly, potential Chinese access to drone data poses a threat to the protection of American citizens’ privacy and security. Using its military hackers, the Chinese government has already initiated several cyberattacks that stole the personal information of millions of Americans. Drone data could be used as yet another tool to compromise Americans’ information.
Mississippi policymakers should consider reforming state and local drone policy to remove the risk of Chinese data infiltration. The solution is relatively simple and inexpensive:
The first policy step that could be taken to eliminate the Chinese drone threat would be to require all state and local government entities to stop using Chinese drones. This would eliminate the security risk.
State and local entities should be reimbursed for the cost of a new non-Chinese drone to replace any Chinese drones currently in use. The cost would likely be as low as $50,000 total. As Mississippi responded to this emerging threat, reimbursements for new drones would provide a seamless transition for government entities that would continue to need drone capabilities. This would allow them to continue utilizing drone technology without being required to draw additional funding from their own budgets.
Protecting American national security is a shared responsibility between the federal government and the states. Mississippi has the opportunity to lead the way among states and take steps to remove the security threats associated with using Chinese drones. Policymakers would do well to consider the implications of a lack of action.
The state government has a responsibility to ensure that taxpayer dollars are used to protect Mississippi citizens. Removing Chinese drones from government operations would be one more way for Mississippi lawmakers to do exactly that.