Chinese drone giant denies data leak claim

Chinese-based DJI said drone users could protect their recorded footage and flight data

A man checks a DJI drone during the Consumer Electronics Show, Ces Asia 2019 in Shanghai on June 11, 2019. / AFP / HECTOR RETAMAL
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The world’s largest drone manufacturer has denied that it posed a national security risk to the UK after MPs voiced fears that the company could hand over sensitive data to the Chinese government.

British MPs questioned a senior official for Shenzhen-based drone maker DJI after US authorities warned businesses of the hazards of using drones made by “foreign authoritarian” states that could collect and transfer footage recorded from the sky.

Brendan Schulman, vice-president of policy and legal affairs at DJI, was questioned over China’s 2017 requirement on domestic companies to cooperate with requests from its intelligence agencies.

Under persistent questioning from MPs on the parliamentary defence committee, Mr Schulman insisted that safeguards were in place that allowed overseas drone customers to prevent the transfer of downloaded footage and flight records to company servers in China.

He said the company would only hand over data through legitimate legal processes and cited a US investigation into a collision between a DJI drone and a helicopter near New York.

“If the data is requested pursuant to law in any country – including China – we would then provide it in accordance with law,” he told the committee sitting in London.

Asked if that meant there was a potential risk to UK national security if the Chinese state requested data, Mr Schulman said: “We don’t have the data that puts the security of this country at risk.”

The issue is part of a broader examination of the role of Chinese tech firms with Huawei effectively frozen out from doing business in the United States following intervention from President Donald Trump.

The issue also led to the sacking of former UK defence secretary Gavin Williamson who was blamed for leaking details of a national security meeting in April which suggested that Huawei would have a role in helping to build the UK’s 5G telecoms network.

The hearings on Tuesday were held to examine the implications of increased drone use across the UK. It followed the cancellation of some 1,000 flights after a drone repeatedly buzzed London’s Gatwick Airport in December last year.

The European Union also published new rules on drones that come into force from July 2020 across the 28-nation bloc. The rules are designed to improve safety and make it easier for drone users to operate their craft in another European country.

The rules specify that new drones must be “individually identifiable” allowing authorities to trace the owners if they breached the rules.