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Government Drones Compromise National Security, yet the NYPD Uses Them

by Ashleigh Dye

Drones produced by a Chinese company, Da Jiang Innovations (“DJI”), have been under scrutiny by the U.S. government for being a potential threat to national security. These same drones however, are being used by The New York City Police Department (“NYPD”).

The NYPD stated that the drones would “undoubtedly help keep New Yorkers and officers safe.”

Numerous departments around the U.S. have begun using drone technology recently and many are buying their drones from DJI because of their cheap prices. Since the use of these drones has grown, advocates for civil rights have spoken out on their concerns that this could lead to violations of privacy and other surveillance issues. One possible problem they have voiced concern about is the use of drones for facial recognition. Policy from the NYPD’s program states that the drones they use “do not use facial recognition technology.” But the policy also states that a “still image can be created ... and may be used ... for facial recognition analysis.”

A lawyer from the Legal Aid Society’s Digital Forensics Unit, Jerome Greco, said “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.”

NYPD spokesperson, Sgt. Jessica McRorie, stated the drones are not used to “conduct activities that would be of national security value.”

While this may or may not be true, questions are being asked of the NYPD and how able they are to protect the data their drones collect. Citing a hack into the city’s Law Department, Albert Fox Cahn, director of Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, an organization which challenges mass surveillance, said “There’s a lot of uncertainty about their ability to protect the data they’re collecting on New Yorkers.” This, he says, raises concerns that the data collected may be accessed by foreign governments.

The U.S. government’s warning is not without cause or merit. China’s National Intelligence Law requires that all Chinese companies help with China’s intelligence mission. Due to this law, the Chinese government could at any moment exert power over a company and require it to give up data that would assist the Chinese government. DJI is not exempt from this law and would have a hard time saying they weren’t subject to it.

While the possibility is there for a national security breach by using DJI or other Chinese-made drones, there is currently no evidence that it has indeed happened. However lacking the evidence may be, policy has been molded around these possibilities.

The Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Army have issued warnings to law enforcement around the country. The Defense Department put into effect a ban on buying and using commercial drones stating cybersecurity issues. The Pentagon has sent warnings out about the Department’s concern that DJI does in fact potentially threaten national security. Congress took this a step further in 2019 by passing legislation that banned Chinese-made drones or drones that are comprised of Chinese-made parts from being used. This legislation caused many federal agencies to cease using them.

As recently as 2021, bans have been put into place against foreign-manufactured drones. The Senate put into effect a legislative measure that will place a five-year ban on the U.S. government’s ability to buy Chinese drones.

Prior to 2017 and the alarm bells ringing, DJI drones were used in many U.S. government agencies, the military, and state departments. Due to the spotty policy changes and lack of uniformity across departments and agencies, some have chosen to continue using this technology, including the U.S. Secret Service and the FBI.

Aside from the risk of data falling into foreign hands, the threat of the NYPD using the drones it has to spy on citizens, specifically those at protests, is very real. In response to it, a bill has been making its way through the legislative process in the New York, currently known as Senate Bill S675 and Assembly Bill A3311. If passed, it would establish the “protect our privacy (“POP”) act,” which could prevent law enforcement from using drones at events such as protests, concerts, and gatherings.  

Source: theintercept.com, stopspying.org

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