Chinese drones over DC raise security, spying fears: report

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WASHINGTON – Chinese-made drones have breached restricted airspace above the nation’s capital hundreds of times in recent months, presenting both a possible security threat and means for foreign adversaries to spy on sensitive US locations, Politico reported Wednesday.

The recreational drones, manufactured by the Shenzhen-based company DJI, are created with “geofencing” technology meant to prevent them from buzzing through no-fly zones. However, some users have retooled the devices to work around that restriction, according to the outlet.

A simple search on YouTube leads to dozens of videos teaching how to overcome geofencing. Several claim it can be done legally, but flying through Federal Aviation Administration-defined restricted zones violates the law.

Federal officials and technology experts have briefed the Senate Homeland Security, Commerce and Intelligence committees in classified settings on the recent flyovers, which reportedly include hundreds of incursions over the Capitol, Pentagon and White House, Politico said, citing anonymous government officials, lawmakers and contractors.

DJI drone
The Chinese company DJI is the world’s largest commercial drone maker.
AFP via Getty Images
A DJI Mavic 3 drone flies past a surveillance tower in Yuma, Arizona, near the Mexican border on Sept. 27, 2022.
A DJI Mavic 3 drone flies past a Mexican border surveillance tower in Yuma, Arizona, on Sept. 27, 2022. US agencies have used DJI drones despite security warnings.
Getty Images

Officials told Politico they do not suspect that Beijing directed the flyovers, but the trend of using commercial drones in banned zones opens the opportunity for bad actors to use such strategies for espionage.

For example, officials worry that China and other adversaries could hack into privately owned drones that are innocently flown in restricted areas, using the images of secure locations to their benefit.

“Anything that’s technological has the capability of having embedded, in the software or in the actual hardware, vulnerabilities that can be exploited at any given moment,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) told Politico.

Sen. Marco Rubio says DJI drones are a national security concern.
Sen. Marco Rubio says DJI drones are a national security concern.
Getty Images

The trend of personal drone use in restricted areas dates back to the early days of commercially accessible aircraft. In 2015, a man crashed a personal drone into the White House, sparking a security scare and temporary lockdown of the building and grounds.

A government official said the man told the Secret Service that he was using the drone recreationally and didn’t mean to fly it over the White House.

The FAA requires drone users to request a waiver to fly anywhere within a 30-mile radius of Ronald Reagan National Airport in northern Virginia, an exclusion zone that covers the National Capital Region.

A Secret Service-released photo shows a drone that crashed on the White House grounds in January 2015. A federal spy agency worker was operating the drone and said the intrusion was unintentional.
A Secret Service-released photo shows a drone that crashed on the White House grounds in January 2015.

The Secret Secret detained a man near the White House in May 2015 for flying a small commercial drone.
The Secret Service detained a man near the White House in May 2015 for flying a small commercial drone (pictured) in Lafayette Park.

“The airspace around Washington, DC, is more restricted than in any other part of the country,” the FAA said in a statement. “Rules put in place after the 9/11 attacks establish ‘national defense airspace’ over the area and limit aircraft operations to those with an FAA and Transportation Security Administration authorization.”

“Violators face stiff fines and criminal penalties.”

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