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DHS Warnings About Chinese Technology Add To Concerns With Ongoing Trade Tensions


The U.S. government has a message for utilities, energy companies and others - think twice before buying Chinese products and putting them in critical infrastructure. Not because of poor manufacturing or even the trade war, but because of possible espionage. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: Unmanned aircraft systems, drones, have become an increasingly popular tool for industry and government. Electric utilities use them to inspect transmission lines. Oil companies fly them over pipelines. The Department of the Interior even deployed them to track lava flows at the Kilauea volcano in Hawaii. But a DHS alert sent out this week warns that drones manufactured by Chinese companies could pose security risks including that the data they gather could be stolen. In a video, DHS says there are multiple threats.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: There's real concern about drones and their potential use for terrorism, mass casualty incidents, interference with air traffic, as well as corporate espionage and invasions of privacy. We're not being paranoid.

NAYLOR: Most of the drones bought in the U.S. are manufactured in China, the vast majority by one company, DJI. Lanier Watkins, a cyber research scientist at Johns Hopkins University, says his team discovered vulnerabilities in DJI drones.

LANIER WATKINS: We could pull information down and we could upload information in a flying drone. So those types of vulnerabilities exist. Also, we could hijack the drone.

NAYLOR: DJI corrected those bugs, and in a statement the company says its customers have full and complete control over how their data is collected, stored and transmitted. This is not the first time the government has expressed concern over use of Chinese-made drones in the U.S., says John Villasenor, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who teaches at UCLA.

JOHN VILLASENOR: There was a spate of news articles, I think back in August of 2017, reporting that the U.S. Army had raised some cybersecurity concerns related to some drones that were manufactured in China. So that concern is not new, although the fact that it has surfaced now, you know, may or may not be tied to these broader trade tensions which have flared up in recent months.

NAYLOR: The DHS warning about Chinese drones coincides with the Trump administration's campaign against tech manufacturer Huawei, which coincides with the ongoing trade war between the two countries. It also comes as officials are warning transit agencies in New York and here in Washington against buying new subway cars made by a Chinese manufacturer. Democratic Senator Mark Warner of Virginia has introduced legislation prohibiting Washington's Metro from buying the Chinese cars because of security concerns.

MARK WARNER: A rail car might have a whole host of sensors, communication tools. And when that equipment is manufactured in China and when that equipment sometimes can be upgraded on a remote basis in terms of a software upgrade, there are national security implications.

NAYLOR: Underlying all the tech concerns, Warner says, is the Beijing government's control over all Chinese companies.

WARNER: The concerns I have is that the Communist Party of China now has in their law the ability to interfere and take information from virtually every Chinese company. And as long as that exists, that provides a whole set of vulnerabilities that I think American business has to consider on a going-forward basis.

NAYLOR: DHS warns that customers be cautious when buying Chinese technology. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.
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