Senators weigh potential security risks from Chinese-made drones

Senators weigh potential security risks from Chinese-made drones
© Greg Nash

Members of the Senate Commerce security subcommittee examined the impact of banning Chinese-made drones, or components for drones, during a hearing on Tuesday.

The senators compared the debate on drones to the recent decision by the Department of Commerce to blacklist Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei in May, a move that barred U.S. firms from working with the company. 

ADVERTISEMENT

Implementation of the ban was delayed by 90 days to give tech companies more time to prepare for the change. Huawei has denied it poses a risk to the United States.

Drones have also been seen as potential national security risks in recent weeks following an industry advisory issued by the Department of Homeland Security in May that warned companies that Chinese-made drones could breach organizations' networks.

Sen. Dan SullivanDaniel Scott SullivanRomney, Collins, Murkowski only Senate GOP holdouts on Graham's impeachment resolution GOP worries it's losing impeachment fight Senate GOP introduces resolution condemning House impeachment inquiry MORE (R-Alaska), the chairman of the security subcommittee, told reporters after the hearing that the potential risk posed by drones had similarities to the concerns about Huawei, even though he noted it was not a “perfect direct analogy.”

“You get a system that is integrated into the economy of the United States that is important, that people use, that people think is reliable from a secure standpoint, a privacy standpoint, and then you realize as the system is being built out that possibly the Chinese government has access to the data and other elements of it, which is concerning,” Sullivan said of the risk to telecommunications posed by Huawei.

While Sullivan was not sure whether all Chinese technology that collects data, and thus potentially sends this data to China, should be “ripped out of the American economy,” he said that “it’s important for us to be aware of it and then possibly start taking action about it.”

Sen. Ed MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeyHillicon Valley: Twitter shares more details on political ad rules | Supreme Court takes up Google-Oracle fight | Pentagon chief defends Microsoft cloud contract House, Senate announce agreement on anti-robocall bill Democratic senators introduce bill to block funding for border wall live stream MORE (D-Mass.), the ranking member of the subcommittee, said that classifying the issue of Chinese drone technology in the same category as Huawei is “very serious.”

Subcommittee member Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) went the most in-depth on his criticism of the current use of Chinese-made drones in the United States.

Scott questioned why the United States still does business with China, calling this “crazy,” and adding that China “is not our friend.” 

Scott estimated during the hearing that over 80 percent of drones in the United States and Canada are Chinese-made, a number that was roughly confirmed by witness Harry Wingo, chair of the Cyber Security Department within the National Defense University. 

Wingo called for a “whole of nation” approach to stop Chinese data threats from drones and other technologies, but cautioned against outright banning the sale of Chinese technologies due to the potential disruption to the U.S. economy.