Fighting Fires with Chinese Drones Despite Possible Data Theft

By Michelle Quinn
June 11, 2019 02:09 AM

FREMONT, CALIF. - In the future, every firetruck will carry a drone, much like they carry a water hose today, says Jeff Kleven, acting division chief of operations with the Fremont (California) Fire Department. 

The department, which has 14 drones, uses the technology to save lives and make firefighters' jobs safer. Recently, with the help of a drone equipped with an infrared camera able to detect body heat, the Fremont police rescued a deaf child at night.  

The fire department has worked with Chinese drone maker DJI to use its drones and software for rescues and training. 

‘Strong concerns’ about data 

Recently, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security repeated concerns that Chinese-made drones could be leaking sensitive data to China. While DJI wasn’t named, it is the world’s largest commercial drone maker. In 2017, the U.S. Army barred use of DJI's drones.

Kleven said the department takes seriously concerns about data. The DHS’s warning serves as a reminder of best practices for storing and transferring information.

“We are well aware of the accusations that are being made. It’s not something new. There are ways we localize our data so it doesn’t go out,” Kleven said. “There are ways we don’t have to be connected to the internet. We don’t have to transfer things over the internet. We can isolate our data within our system. We are confident with that.”

WATCH: US Law enforcement find use for Chinese drones

Popular with first responders

Romeo Durscher, head of public safety integration at DJI,  denied the leaking allegations and said the company has worked over the past year to give users more control over their data.  

“We’ve done more security implementation so that the operator has the ability to control his or her own data,” Durscher said. “We are not in the business of controlling data. But we want to give the tools to the operator to say how the data is being stored or processed or transmitted. And those pieces are in place.”

Durscher estimates that more than 1,000 U.S. fire, police and other first responders use drones, and that drones have saved more than 200 lives worldwide. But as it grows, the company finds itself caught in the middle of tensions between Beijing and Washington. 

Increasing data controls for users 

“We certainly live in a very different and challenging time right now with what is happening politically worldwide,” Durscher said. “We’re putting mitigative solutions in place so the data security risk is managed and manageable.”

This Chinese-made eye-in-the-sky technology will continue to work with local fire departments in the U.S. as Beijing and Washington continue their fight over who will be the global tech super power.

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