Drones suspended at Home Affairs as Chinese tech fears grow

Chinese technology fears are growing across the federal government, with Border Force joining Defence in suspending the use of drones from a Shenzhen-based manufacturer on security grounds.

Representatives from Home Affairs revealed at Senate Estimates that the department had suspended the use of drones manufactured by DJI over security concerns following a similar decision by the Department of Defence earlier this month.

DJI was blacklisted by the United State Department of Defense in October last year, with the drone maker joining Huawei and surveillance camera manufacturer Hikvision on a list of companies deemed to be connected to China’s military.

“In light of the concerns that have been generated over recent weeks, we have actually suspended the use of that capability,” Home Affairs chief operating officer Ms Saunders said on Monday, adding that the decision also extends to Border Force.

Home Affairs secretary Mike Pezzullo fronting Senate Estimates on Monday

Ms Saunders said that a directive not to use the drones was issued last week, however Border Force commissioner Michael Outram on Tuesday morning clarified that this departmental directive followed a more targeted direction to cease a pilot trial of 47 drones was issued on May 8.

“Once that decision was taken by the secretary and the chief of the Defence Force, I thought it was prudent to cease the trial until we knew more and undertake more research,” Mr Outram told the committee.

Home Affairs is now working with Defence, which is conducting a six-month security audit of high-risk technology, and other partners to “satisfy ourselves as to the implications of the use of this technology before it is used”, Ms Saunders said.

For Border Force, whether DJI will be able to be replaced by other technologies is a matter of budget. “DJI were very affordable and high potential technology, so we’ll now have to look and see what other technologies are available”, he said on Tuesday.

With drones the latest Chinese technology to be suspended or banned, shadow cybersecurity minister James Paterson on Monday asked Home Affairs representatives whether it was time to contemplate a more “proactive approach in assessing cybersecurity and technology risks posed by companies”.

Home Affairs secretary Mike Pezzullo said that he expected “more uniform and more ubiquitously restrictive processes” to arrive in future, removing the need for individual decisions by departments and agencies.

TikTok is a recent example of this, with the government following other Five Eyes nations by banning the social media app on government-issued devices over cyber security and foreign interference fears last month.

“The question governments of all persuasions and across democracies generally will have to confront is how directive they start to become in terms of saying ‘here is a type of kit you will not use… [and that] all has to be used by you as the accountable authority’,” he said.

“I think we’ll have to consider that approach more ubiquitously simply because of the connectivity of devices, the connectivity of technologies, the way in which a drone or a camera or some kind of imaging device could potentially beacon back or send its data back to a host server”.

Home Affairs has also turned its attention to whether the Security of Critical Infrastructure (SOCI) Act gives the government sufficient scope to direct critical infrastructure providers to stop using particular devices should they pose a risk.

“A Minister of Home Affairs could declare a particular device to be a material risk that then a company would have to mitigate, so I think it could be done in that constructure,” Cyber and Infrastructure Security Group deputy secretary Hamish Hansford said.

“The other available technique might be using Section 32 of the SOCI Act which is a ministerial direction, dependent on an adverse security assessment from the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation though.”

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