A Blog by Jonathan Low

 

Apr 27, 2016

World's Biggest Drone Maker Says It May Share User Data With Chinese Government

DJI sells, by far, the most consumer drones in the US. Data, though imprecise at this early stage in the product's evolution, suggests it dominates the market with 70% share.

That the Chinese government insists on its right to the data and images those drones generate should not come as a surprise. Whether those rights will be recognized by US courts, where this is sure to be adjudicated, is one question - and an important one given the competitively sensitive nature of the information produced for industry, agriculture, government et al.

Whether anyone can take practical steps to prevent the sharing of this data is, perhaps, the more pertinent issue. JL

Paul Mozur reports in the New York Times:

DJI is complying with requests from the Chinese government to hand over data it collects in China. (But) DJI could also give the government data from flights in Hong Kong.  DJI sells drones in the United States (and elsewhere, but says it does) not have a way to see video or images from drones beyond those that users upload via a company social-media app. "If the government says it wants this data, we will tell the user. We communicate all of this.”
DJI is the Chinese company that took drone technology — long the purview of major military forces — and made it cheap and accessible enough for ordinary people.
But as the technology is put into the hands of consumers, it raises new questions for DJI and others in the industry: What should be done with the information those drones gather? The little pilotless flying machines typically carry cameras, GPS sensors and other devices that can tell interested parties where they have been and what they have seen. How much of that information should be shared with local governments?
That question is especially important in China, where regulators have looked askance at drones while tightening their hold over civil society.
In a briefing for Chinese and foreign journalists at DJI’s headquarters in Shenzhen on Wednesday, Zhang Fanxi, a spokesman for the company, said it was still working out how to deal with the data it collects in China. But for now, he said, DJI is complying with requests from the Chinese government to hand over data.
Adam Najberg, another DJI spokesman, said DJI evaluated each request and complied if it decided that request was legitimate.
DJI could also give the government data from flights in Hong Kong, Mr. Zhang said. That could raise eyebrows among drone users in the city, a semiautonomous Chinese territory with its own laws that guarantee freedom of expression and its own independent judicial system. Protests in Hong Kong that shut down parts of the city in late 2014 were prompted in part by concerns that Beijing was interfering in local affairs.
For the moment, Mr. Zhang said, DJI was uncertain what the industry would decide to do with the data. “This data, exactly how we use it, when we use it and which government departments we give it to” is a continuing discussion, he said.
DJI also sells drones in the United States. Mr. Najberg said DJI did not have a way to see video or images from drones beyond those that users upload themselves via a company social-media app. He also said that the company’s phone app uploads flight data to its servers, though consumers can use third-party apps that do not.
DJI is not alone in cooperating with Chinese authorities when they request data, which is required of all companies doing business there. In its most recent report on government requests for information, Apple said it received about 1,000 requests for data in the second half of last year from Chinese authorities and supplied data about two-thirds of the time. Apple said this week that it had never handed encryption keys over to the Chinese authorities, which would give Beijing direct and broad access to communications on Apple’s products.
(Over the same period, Apple received about 4,000 requests from the United States authorities and handed over data four-fifths of the time, according to its report. Access to encrypted communications on Apple devices has become the subject of a fierce American political debate.)

But China has been seeking more ways to tap into electronic communications. Two years ago, it proposed a law that would require foreign companies to turn over encryption keys for security reasons, though the final version dropped that language. Officials have cited rising online crime in China, worries about terrorist attacks and disclosures by Edward J. Snowden, the former United States government contractor who revealed that American intelligence agencies sometimes used American technology products to gather information.

Mr. Zhang said DJI did not give Chinese authorities direct access to drones unless requested. “If the government says it wants this data, we will tell the user,” he said. “We communicate all of this.”
Still, China has not formalized rules over drones, so the industry’s obligations are unclear.
Already, DJI’s user agreement flags the possibility that whoever flies a drone may not be flying it alone. It reads: “Please note that if you conduct your flight in certain countries, your flight data might be monitored and provided to the government authorities according to local regulatory laws.”
In other areas, relations with Beijing remain untested. The company has had numerous requests from local governments in China to work with and train the military police and other security forces to use its drones for surveillance and to track criminals, Mr. Zhang said.

Still, drones face a skeptical audience here. In 2013, Chinese forces shot down a drone over a Beijing suburb. Several months later, a foreigner who took breathtaking shots of central Beijing with a DJI drone earned a brief detention and a stern talking-to.
Drones have raised security concerns in the United States as well, after one crashed on the White House lawn last year. At the briefing, DJI said that it continued to expand a system that ensured the drones could not fly in sensitive areas, an arrangement known as geofencing.
Correction: April 20, 2016
An earlier version of this article misstated the requirements for uploading flight data to a DJI server. Data will be uploaded from users of the official DJI smartphone app who choose to receive regular software updates. It is not the case that users must be enrolled in a flight-logging service.

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