US Interior Department to ground its drones over Chinese spying risk

The latest escalation in trade tensions between the US and China will bring down 800 drones.

Rae Hodge Former senior editor
Rae Hodge was a senior editor at CNET. She led CNET's coverage of privacy and cybersecurity tools from July 2019 to January 2023. As a data-driven investigative journalist on the software and services team, she reviewed VPNs, password managers, antivirus software, anti-surveillance methods and ethics in tech. Prior to joining CNET in 2019, Rae spent nearly a decade covering politics and protests for the AP, NPR, the BBC and other local and international outlets.
Rae Hodge
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More than 800 US Interior Department drones are grounded pending a programwide review.  

Joshua Goldman/CNET

The US Department of the Interior is grounding its fleet of more than 800 aerial drones over concerns about Chinese spying and cyberattacks. The fleet will remain grounded until a full review is completed by Secretary David Bernhardt, the department said Thursday. However, drones being used for emergency rescues and disasters will remain in flight.

The move, earlier reported by The Wall Street Journal, highlights US-Chinese trade tensions, which have escalated since the blacklisting of Chinese tech giant Huawei by the US government in May. The DOI's decision also follows a May warning from the Department of Homeland Security about data security issues involving the use of Chinese-made drones, particularly those made by DJI. DHS said it was concerned about drones' capacity to observe and transmit prohibited infrastructure surveillance and conduct cyberattacks. 

All DOI drones are either manufactured in China or contain Chinese-made components, according to the DOI, and 121 are manufactured by DJI

"Secretary [David] Bernhardt is reviewing the Department of the Interior's drone program," DOI spokesperson Nick Goodwin said in a statement. "Until this review is completed, the Secretary has directed that drones manufactured in China or made from Chinese components be grounded unless they are currently being utilized for emergency purposes, such as fighting wildfires, search and rescue, and dealing with natural disasters that may threaten life or property."  

In July, the DOI completed a nearly 2-year partnership with DJI and a 15-month data security testing process, as detailed in a public report from the department

DJI said it was disappointed in the DOI's decision to ground the drone fleet. 

"We have worked with the Department of Interior to create a safe and secure drone solution that meets their rigorous requirements, which was developed over the course of 15 months with DOI officials, independent cybersecurity professionals, and experts at NASA," a DJI spokesperson said in a statement. "We will continue to support the Department of Interior and provide assistance as it reviews its drone fleet so the agency can quickly resume the use of drones to help federal workers conduct vital operations." 

Read more: NYPD powers up drone squad and promises not to spy on people

Watch this: How drones are helping fight California's wildfires