“It’s a very intrusive form of surveillance.”
SZ DJI Technology Co., the world’s largest maker of small civilian drones, said it’s in discussions with Chinese government officials keen to gain access to the trove of data its airborne devices siphon up via its app. That includes location, flight records and possibly video shot by users and uploaded to its servers, said Zhang Fanxi, a spokesman for the company.
“Should DJI receive a valid legal request from a government agency, we may provide user information to that agency, just as other companies do, ” spokesman Oliver Wang said in the statement. “That is the case in the U.S., China or anywhere in the world where a valid legal request is made by authorities.”
To quell potential privacy concerns, DJI should clarify how long it keeps data, limit the types of information collected and outline how it handles customers by jurisdiction, said Lokman Tsui, an assistant professor at the School of Journalism and Communication at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who has advised Google on freedom of expression.
“This puts them in a very difficult position with international customers,” Tsui said. “They collect a lot of data, and it’s unclear at this point what the retention
“It’s a very intrusive form of surveillance,” said Professor John Bacon-Shone, Associate Dean of Social Sciences at The University of Hong Kong. “It’s one thing if it only applies to DJI’s products inside China, but what if it’s outside of China?”
“If people do not trust that this will only apply inside the mainland, I think it will have a major impact on the company.”
Is this a bad thing? Well to the extent that it provides accountability, no. What people are not aware of is that many flight controllers besides DJI’s record this data. Though presumably it is not uploaded to the manufacturer.
However, making flight data available to a foreign government is one reason cited for various US departments including DOI, DOE and NASA not purchasing DJI products. Most recently the DOI announced the purchase of 40 3DR Solos, which while made in the USA, are hardly best in class. This despite the fact that DOI enjoys a close relationship with DJI and has funded a project to enable geofencing of wildfires.
As US companies become aware of it, this may be of concern to various organizations looking to stand up internal organizations or to hire drone service providers.
NOTE It is impossible to know if DJI developed this capability in response to government directives. To the extent that this type of monitoring appears to be the rule and not the exception it is reasonable to wonder if Yuneec, Xiaomi and other mainland manufacturers also do this type of data collection.