As a summer of social and political upheaval continues to tax stretched emergency services across Europe, governments are deploying new technologies to identify and pursue troublemakers.
Recent news stories from France and Belgium show that police chiefs have authorised the heavy use of powerful drones to support officers on the ground – primarily in reinforcing lockdown restrictions and quashing protests.
French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin has even taken the initiative one step further by requesting that drone-collected evidence be accepted in the country’s courts. In similar vein, Italian police are using drones to monitor controls on road movements, while Spanish authorities are drafting in drones to spray disinfectant in cities hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic.
Law enforcement isn’t the only sector benefiting from the drone invasion. The demand for commercial drones is driving so-called ‘low space’ innovation and investment, resulting in the fast-track testing of robots and drones.
A recent study from digital prototypes manufacturer Protolabs has found an increased appetite all round for commercial drones – especially in their capacity to strengthen the public health response to equipment supply challenges during the current pandemic. In fact, the UK’s civil space agency, UKSA, recently announced a new push for the funding of space-enabled tech to support the management of infectious disease outbreaks like Covid-19.
A risky bet?
Drone technology is advancing at fast clip – and, with it, the potential to exploit sensitive data. Indeed, while the value of such sophisticated surveillance and reconnaissance drones to law-enforcement and emergency services is undeniable, the data collected – including the location of critical infrastructure, for example – is creating new security risks. According to figures from Statista, commercial drone sales in Europe topped $360m in 2019 and are predicted to rise this year to more than $544m – with projections at $3bn by 2025.
However, this growing demand for drones from public and government entities alike represents a silent security threat for the EU: the market is dominated by Chinese producer D-Mada Jiang Innovations (DJI), which has cornered 70% of the global consumer drone market – despite serious concerns the company might be sharing sensitive user data with Chinese authorities.
Study after study has shown that fears over data hijacking aren’t merely scaremongering. In July, Synacktiv and GRIMM, two cybersecurity firms, discovered that drone-management Android app ‘DJI GO 4’ was collecting sensitive user data that was downloadable by the developer, opening up users’ phones to surveillance and attack. Another research and engineering firm, River Loop Security, recently analysed DJI’s ‘Mimo’ editing app and found that not only was it able to monitor user data and send it without consent to third-party servers, but that the T&Cs allowed the data to be shared with the Chinese government.
While the Shenzen-based company has strenuously denied these claims, it’s clear the company has close ties to the Chinese government. In 2017, DJI signed an agreement with Xinjiang’s security department that included the deployment of drones in the region for ‘counter-terrorism’ purposes – as evidenced by drone footage of Uyghur prisoners that was widely shared on social media earlier this summer.
This growing body of evidence has led American authorities to take action over concerns that drone movements or recordings could all-too-easily be accessed by Beijing’s security services. The US Army banned the use of DJI drones in 2017 after concerns over cyber-vulnerabilities, and the Department of the Interior decided in January 2020 to ground all Chinese-made drones in its fleet. A subsequent draft bill making its way through Congress would take it a step further and would ban federal agencies from buying or using drones from Chinese manufacturers.
By comparison to its US counterparts, the EU’s more fluid stance over Chinese technology is worrisome. Indeed, European policymakers have so far shown little concern over Chinese companies’ alleged involvement in human rights abuses or unauthorised data transfers. While the US is pushing for action, not only against the incursion of network giants like Huawei, but also on social data-gatherers like TikTok and WeChat, this approach isn’t being replicated in Europe. It’s not surprising then that the Shenzhen-based company is actively touting its links with government law-enforcement agencies in the EU, brushing over the fact that its technology has been blacklisted by many government agencies on the other side of the pond.
The rapid pace of drone technology development can only serve to broaden the threat from hostile forces. In a bid to encourage the development of trusted alternatives, the US Department of Defense has recently cleared five drone manufacturers – four U.S. companies, Skydio, Vantage Robotics, Altavian, and Teal Drones, and French outfit Parrot – which are allowed to sell to the U.S military and federal agencies.
As the penny drops over the real costs of procuring tech that comes with the inherent risk of hostile and co-opted data-sharing, the EU would be well advised to follow suit, move to limit the use of Chinese-manufactured equipment and encourage trusted alternatives. If not, it could be yet another case of too little, too late.