US warning against Chinese drone technology monitoring Australian airports
The Civil Aviation and Safety Authority is installing drone detection technology at Sydney Harbour and Australian airports, hiring a company the United States has previously warned could contribute to cyber attacks.
CASA has opted for a Chinese-developed technology called DJI Aerospace despite official US concerns the company could be sending drone-harvested data back to Beijing.
The counter drone measures come in the wake of the chaos caused at London's Gatwick airport before Christmas when Britain's second-busiest airport was closed for 36 hours following multiple sightings of illegal drones, disrupting travel plans for at least 115,000 people. The episode exposed a major weakness in a country's ability to respond to a hostile drone attack.
In 2017, the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency said it had "moderate confidence" that the DJI was "providing US critical infrastructure and law enforcement data to the Chinese government."
ICE said it had high confidence the company was "selectively targeting government and privately owned entities within these sectors to expand its ability to collect and exploit sensitive US data".
It said with the data from DJI drones uploaded automatically to cloud servers based in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, "a foreign government with access to this information could easily coordinate physical or cyber attacks against critical sites".
Peter Gibson, a spokesman for CASA said he had no concerns about Australia's choice of technology partner.
“Relevant security issues were taken into account when selecting the contractor. A number of different technologies are being used by the contractor," he said.
DJI spokesman Adam Lisberg said: "AeroScope cannot spy on Australian airport systems, or any other airport systems, or anything else. AeroScope receives radio signals from DJI drones and uses that information to display their location on a map."
It said it had commissioned a data security consultancy to conduct a cyber security audit to refute the US' concerns.
CASA approached Counter Drone Solutions, the Australian distributor for DJI, instead of putting the contract out to tender. It has not released the value of the contract.
The chief executive of CDS, John Hildebrand, said he could not comment on operational matters.
Andrew Hastie, the Liberal MP and chair of the joint intelligence committee sounded a warning about plans to use drone technology from a company linked to the Chinese state to monitor Australia's airports.
"I do not support authoritarian foreign governments being involved in Australia’s domestic and national security architecture. That's my starting principle," Mr Hastie said.
Mr Hastie likened his position to the collective effort by the Five Eyes community, (Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom), and some of its allies against the Chinese telecommunications manufacturer Huawei supplying broadband and mobile infrastructure.
The international community's stance against China's tech giant culminated in the arrest of Huawei's chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou in Canada over alleged breaches of US sanctions with Iran.
Huawei and DJI insist they do not spy on behalf of Beijing. The British military has been deployed twice to London airports following drone sightings with the most recent incident at Heathrow.
Latika Bourke is a journalist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based in London.