Country-of-Origin Approach to Drones Won’t Address National Security Concerns

July 17, 2020

(Ed. Note: The “Innovation Fact of the Week” appears as a regular feature in each edition of ITIF’s weekly email newsletter. Sign up today.)

As China emerges as a global economic and technological leader, what threats do its products pose to U.S. national security? 

Some policymakers have argued that using Chinese technology products risks exposing Americans to spying by the Chinese government. These concerns have already led the U.S. government to ban Chinese telecom company Huawei’s equipment from American 5G networks (and encourage its allies to do the same). In Huawei’s case, there are both real security concerns and good policy reasons for a ban, including the possibility of state and corporate espionage and the long-term risk of Huawei unfairly cornering the market for wireless equipment. There have also been calls to launch an investigation of the popular social media app TikTok, which is owned by a Chinese company, and ban the app from federal employees’ devices.

This debate has now shifted to drones, with some policymakers expressing concern about the U.S. government’s use of Chinese-made drones. Last October, the Department of the Interior—which had been using drones to fight forest fires, inspect land for erosion damage, monitor dams and floods, track endangered species, aid in search and rescue, and respond to natural disasters—grounded its entire drone fleet because all its drones were either made in China or with parts from China. The only exception was for drones used for emergency purposes.

More recently, Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL) introduced an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021, titled the American Security Drone Act (ASDA) of 2020, which would ban the federal government from buying or using drones made in China. Additionally, President Trump may soon sign an “Executive Order on Protecting the Nation From Foreign Unmanned Aircraft Systems and Associated Systems.” The order would also ban the federal government from buying or using drones made in China or using components manufactured in China.

It is good that Congress and the administration are prioritizing cybersecurity of emerging technologies like drones, and working to ensure that any technology the government uses is safe, secure, and effective, but the ASDA and draft executive order are going about this the wrong way with their country-of-origin approach, at least if the driving concern is cybersecurity.

At a technical level, country of origin is not a legitimate factor in determining whether a product is secure. A Chinese-made drone may be secure even though it was manufactured in China, and an American-made drone may not be secure even though it was manufactured in the United States. The approach could lead to a false sense of security, where the government and the public assume domestically manufactured drones are secure, as well as reduced adoption of drone technology by a multitude of sectors. 

Moreover, there are better ways to address concerns about China spying on the United States with drones. First, the U.S. government should be prepared to address the legitimate cybersecurity risks of drones regardless of whether the U.S. government employs Chinese or non-Chinese drones. The government can accomplish this task by creating a mandatory security policy for any federal government purchase or use of drones. Second, if the concern is that the Chinese government will secretly steal information by employing a hidden backdoor of some sort in the software of the Chinese-made drones, then the U.S. government should manage this concern by monitoring network traffic or encrypting all communications sent from the drones and only sending it to secure U.S. facilities. Third, if the concern is that the Chinese government will demand Chinese firms provide it data that these companies collect, the U.S. can use drones that do not provide data to the manufacturer and disable the connection between drones and the Internet during operation. 

In their current state, the ASDA and draft executive order have it backwards. The ASDA first bans certain foreign-made drones, then requires the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to conduct an assessment of the impact of banning foreign-made drones and to work with other departments and agencies to develop a risk-based, government-wide procurement policy for drones. Similarly, the executive order instructs the Director of the OMB to work with agency and department heads to conduct a review of their procurement and use of drones—again, only after first banning certain foreign-made drones. This review would guide U.S. procurement policy.

It would be more effective if the government first assessed the impact of banning foreign-made drones, then developed a procurement and use policy for drones that addresses national security concerns and required federal agencies only procure and use drones that meet the policy’s standards, without making assumptions based on country of origin. Under this policy, if some or all Chinese-made drones posed a national security risk, they would still fail to qualify for government procurement or use, but the U.S. government and the public would benefit from knowing that the drones the government uses meet the highest safety and security requirements regardless of where they are made.