Cyberwarfare / Nation-State Attacks , Endpoint Security , Fraud Management & Cybercrime

Interior Dept. Grounds Drones Over Cybersecurity Concerns

Department Says Several Concerns Must Be Addressed
Interior Dept. Grounds Drones Over Cybersecurity Concerns

The U.S. Department of the Interior this week announced that it has temporarily grounded all drone operations, except for emergencies, citing concerns over national security and cybersecurity.

See Also: The State of Organizations' Security Posture as of Q1 2018

The department’s order does not specifically mention threats posed by Chinese-made drones, but Gizmodo reports all of the Interior Department's drones are either made in China or are produced with Chinese parts.

All non-emergency drone and unmanned aircraft operations will be grounded until Interior Department officials can address several concerns, including issues related to cybersecurity, technological development and domestic production issues, according to a statement released Wednesday.

"Drone use for non-emergency operations will remain grounded while the Department of the Interior reviews the possibility of threats and ensures a secure, reliable and consistent drone policy that advances our mission while keeping America safe," says Carol Danko, an Interior Department spokesperson.

And while the Interior Department did not cite any specific threats to its operations from drones, Danko noted that "in certain circumstances, information collected during [unmanned aircraft systems] missions has the potential to be valuable to foreign entities, organizations, and governments."

Drone Use

The Interior Department says the agency uses drones for emergency management, surveying federal land, collecting research data and assisting law enforcement. Unmanned aircraft are also used for collecting and assessing information that relates to critical American energy, transportation and defense infrastructure.

Interior Department officials say that the use of drones in emergency situations such as fighting wildfires, search and rescue missions and dealing with natural disasters that could threaten life or property will continue.

Army Takes Action

The Interior Department is the latest federal agency to raise national security and cybersecurity concerns overs drones, especially those devices designed and manufactured in China. In 2017, for example, the U.S. Army announced it would halt the use of all drones made by China-based DJI and ordered batteries and storage media to be removed and application software to be uninstalled from the drones (see: US Army Nixes Use of DJI Drones Over Cybersecurity Concerns)

In 2017, the U.S. Navy also raised concerns about drones and the ability of cyber spies to download data from unmanned aircraft, according a recent declassified memo. Despite its concerns, however, the Navy and the Air Force apparently still use DJI drones (see: US Navy Memo Raised Cyberscurity Concerns About DJI Drones)

In May 2019, the Department of Homeland Security issued its own warning about how cyber spies could intercept data from drones manufactured in China, although that memo did not cite DJI by name (see: DHS Reportedly Warns of Chinese-Made Drones Stealing Data)

Chinese Drones Under Scrutiny

Of the drones listed on the Interior Department's website as those in use, two are made by Chinese manufacturer DJI. These include the Matrice 600 Pro and Mavic Pro, both of which are designed specifically for the department. And while the Interior Department statement does not name a specific drone manufacturer, DJI says that the company is being singled out.

In a statement issued Wednesday, DJI says that the company is "extremely disappointed" by the Interior Department's decision and called the order politically motivated.

"This decision makes clear that the U.S. government's concerns about DJI drones, which make up a small portion of the DOI fleet, have little to do with security and are instead part of a politically motivated agenda to reduce market competition and support domestically produced drone technology, regardless of its merits," according to the company's statement.

DJI has maintained that it does not share customer information or drone video with Chinese authorities. The company has acknowleged, however, that if it faced valid legal orders, it would provide data if necessary to comply with local laws.

On Thursday, DJI published a lengthy blog post about the Interior Department's decision, writing that it worked with the agency for months to resolve any security concerns.

About the Author

Ishita Chigilli Palli

Ishita Chigilli Palli

Senior Correspondent, Global News Desk

As senior correspondent for Information Security Media Group's global news desk, Ishita covers news worldwide. She previously worked at Thomson Reuters, where she specialized in reporting breaking news stories on a variety of topics.

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