The Platform

Photo illustration by John Lyman

The real concern should be Chinese-made drones, not a wayward balloon.

Many people were rightly concerned about a Chinese spy balloon slowly making its way across the United States, but that is not the only way foreign countries collect valuable information on critical infrastructure. There are other types of technology, including social media, which can lend themselves to collecting information and learning habits of individuals as well as their interests and affiliations.

It has already been established that personal information on social media is vulnerable to hackers or the companies that run them. In some states, the use of TikTok has been banned or least restricted due to its ability to collect not only the users personal information but also from other accounts interacting or linking up with that subscriber. It is a real threat to privacy. The use of that information could be used for surveillance or even social and political manipulation.

Just like there is a real concern about information-gathering with the use of social media, the use of a personal drone should also raise red flags because one of the companies that sells drones in the United States is DJI, a Chinese-owned company, that is also funded by the Chinese government. There is already a precedent set that the company must hand over information to the government when requested.

In an article written for the American Intelligence Journal several years ago, the concept of “building a silent robotic army for China” in the United States was discussed.

Did you know that one out of ten drones is lost for good on its initial flight? That is a very significant number as you will find out later.

With so many Americans buying drones for various applications, the use of drone technology also lends itself to being a perfect vehicle for spying and intelligence-gathering. And this can be done without the owner of the drone even knowing it.

The way DJI keeps control of its drones is to restrict their capabilities unless the owner downloads software updates from the company’s website.

No one knows what’s in those software updates. Owners will download the new software update every time it is required. The company might include a new feature or two, but they also might be downloading new guidance software that responds to a different master controller which could override the owner’s controller at some point.

All the drones that are being used could be recalled by a master controller which would then use them for both surveillance or attacks on critical infrastructure. Being able to command them into large swarms would create an aerial robotic army to carry out various missions from monitoring areas and surveillance to interference with commercial and military traffic.

Lost drones that were mentioned at the beginning of this article have also been accumulating over the past several years. If one out of ten is lost on its initial flight, that becomes a significant number of drones when you reach one or two million. One drone can do a small amount of damage, but what if you have 100,000 flying in a swarm?

This sounds like a Tom Clancy book, but it is well within the realm of possibilities. Being able to control large fleets of drones and direct them to specific targets and airspace would be a great weapon to have within a country because what would you be able to do if you found the remains of a drone and even read its serial number? All it would lead you to would be the original owner who bought the drone and lost it on its initial flight. You would not be able to track down who was controlling its flight.

What are the defenses for something like this? There is no universal kill switch to shut down all drone traffic in the United States. We do not have that capability today. We cannot “clear” the airspace because we can’t control all the drones.

While China’s wayward balloon stoked fears, perhaps it’s the drones we should be worried about.

As observed in the American Intelligence Journal article: “It is not beyond the realm of possibility, nor the scope of current and emerging microchip technologies, to have drones perform spying and surveillance while being controlled remotely as a fleet.”

This should be an overdue wake-up call to those who believe they have all our air defenses covered.

James Carlini is a strategist for mission critical networks, technology, and intelligent infrastructure. Since 1986, he has been president of Carlini and Associates. Besides being an author, keynote speaker, and strategic consultant on large mission critical networks including the planning and design for the Chicago 911 center, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange trading floor networks, and the international network for GLOBEX, he has served as an adjunct faculty member at Northwestern University.